What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold at the STORE of John Smith … A general Assortment of GOODS.”
Advertisements like this one from John Smith make me reassess (or, at least, temper) one of the central arguments of my work on advertising in eighteenth-century America. I contend that the consumer revolution that took place in the late colonial period, during the American Revolution, and into the era of the Early Republic was supply driven, whereas others argue that it was generated by consumer demand. I have spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink making the case that newspaper advertisements and other marketing media were developed to incite demand among potential customers, that producers, suppliers, and retailers invoked a variety of appeals and devised incentives to encourage potential customers that they wanted and needed to purchase their goods and services.
Smith’s rather simple advertisement is certainly not the best example offering support for such claims. At first glance, it seems to amount to little more than an announcement. However, I am not willing to abandon my argument concerning the significance of supply (rather than demand) in the consumer revolution. Consider other advertisements that appeared in the same issue. Many make appeals to price or quality or fashion. Some provide extensive lists to underscore the choices available to potential customers. Indeed, even the relatively banal reference to “A general Assortment of GOODS” does make an appeal by hinting at the possibility of many choices among Smith’s merchandise. Smith’s advertisement may not be flashy by modern standards — or the standards of the nineteenth century or even the final decades of the eighteenth century — but it does suggest that even many of the most rudimentary advertisements used language meant to engage readers and encourage them to make purchases.