April 22


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 year ago this week?

Apr 22 - 4:22:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766)

“SpermaCeti Candles of the best Manufacture, warranted pure.”

In today’s advertisement spermaceti candles were being sold. Spermaceti candles are candles made out of headmatter from sperm whales. Massachusetts history is rich with whaling culture. According to the Nantucket Historical Association, “Candles were considered a specialized element of the whale-oil trade and were priced as a luxury item.” Spermaceti candles burned brighter and also were odorless. This made them a very attractive commodity and far more expensive than the traditional tallow candles.

In the early eighteenth century colonists first started coming across pods of sperm whales, but it was not until the 1750s that spermaceti oil refining started taking place. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, sperm whales were difficult to hunt because they have the ability to dive upwards of three thousand feet, deeper than any other marine animal, and hold their breath for up to ninety minutes. This made hunting them with the rudimentary seafaring technology of the eighteenth century both impressive and lucrative, an endeavor that also came with great danger. These candles were pivotal to life before electricity.

Although the major boom of whaling in New England would not come until the nineteenth century, I still found it interesting that Boston newspapers were advertising spermaceti candles in the 1760s. Patty Jo Rice of the Nantucket Historical Association says, “By 1763 there were as many as twelve manufacturers in the colonies and accusations of pricing violations was commonplace.” This points to development of the whaling market that was not completely documented at the time and that can be hard trace. Today’s advertisement helps to demonstrate that whaling and whale products were becoming increasingly popular in colonial America.



Testaments to quality were among the most common appeals made in eighteenth-century advertisements. Henry Lloyd mobilized such an appeal more than once in today’s advertisement, first when he described the pork he sold as “choice” and again when he assured potential customers that his “SpermaCeti Candles” were both “of the best Manufacture” and “warranted pure.”

The promise that theses candles were “warranted pure” merits additional investigation. Drawing once again from the Nantucket Historical Association, we know that “headmatter, sperm oil (oil from the blubber of the sperm whale), and whale oil (from all other whales) became separate products in the marketplace with headmatter commanding an average of three times the price of standard whale oil.” When shipping these products to England, whaling merchants sometimes mixed whale oil and headmatter together to avoid the higher duties on headmatter. That being the case, colonial consumers could be justifiably suspicious when purchasing spermaceti candles. If headmatter and whale oil could be combined to lower the duties when exported, why not combine them to raise the price of candles made and sold in the colonies? In an era with far fewer regulations than the modern business environment, Henry Lloyd gave his word that customers who purchased relatively expensive spermaceti candles were not being duped or cheated.

Lloyd was not alone in doing so. “Warranted Pure” was a standard assurance offered to consumers in advertisements for spermaceti candles in the decade before the American Revolution. A Boston manufactory issued a trade card circa 1770 that announced “Sperma-ceti candles warranted pure; are made by Joseph Palmer & Co.” The collections of the John Carter Brown Library include this trade card, circa 1764, from Nicholas Brown and Company in Providence. It also promised that customers could purchase spermaceti candles that were “Warranted Pure.” Note the whale in the center and the whalers in the cartouche at the top.

Apr 22 - Spermaceti Trade Card
Nicholas Brown & Co. trade card for spermaceti candles, ca. 1764 (John Carter Brown Library.)

In Which Advertising Ephemera Became Paratexts for Material Culture

A couple of months ago I examined binder’s labels and trade cards, arguing that when they were affixed to books they became paratexts that transformed goods that were purchsed for use by consumers into advertisements that continued to promote further consumption long after the initial purchase took place. Such instances represented a particular case of a wider practice in eighteenth-century America. An assortment of artisans, retailers, and merchants attached labels to a variety of goods they made or sold. Sometimes these labels had been created expressly for that purpose. Other times they were trade cards or broadsides adapted for new use. On occasion they supplemented newspaper advertisements, even reiterating the text that appeared in the public prints.

When printers, booksellers, and bookbinders inserted their labels in the books they printed, sold, or bound, those labels rightly became paratexts, additional printed materials that framed the main text and potentially altered the reception of the text by readers. How should such labels be described when attached to other goods – items that were not printed, such as furniture or containers? Is it possible to have a paratext without a text? Or should we conceive of texts in different ways? Historians “read,” analyze, and interpret a variety of primary sources, from printed and manuscript texts to visual images to material culture artifacts and architecture. In one way or another, don’t all of these qualify as texts, even if they did not come off a printing press or flow from a pen?

Let’s take a closer look at some examples. In the eighteenth century, Americans who made and sold a variety of goods devised ways to transform their products into advertisements that would associate their name with their goods long after their wares left the shop. Many items, especially those purchased from artisans, came with labels or other marks denoting their source. Pewterers and silversmiths stamped their creations with unique marks. Cabinetmakers and other woodworkers signed, stamped, impressed, or branded the furniture they created, and others affixed labels to the bottoms of drawers, the backs of mirrors, and underneath chair seats. For example, Simon Edgell, a pewterer active in Philadelphia between 1713 and 1742, stamped many of his works with his name and city and the outline of a bird.[1] During the final decade of the century, Benjamin, Jr., and Joseph Harbeson imprinted their pewter goods with two concentric circles with the words “HARBESON PHILADA:” situated between them.[2] At the end of the 1790s, Parks Boyd marked his work with his name and city and an eagle, apparently attempting to associate himself and his products with patriotism.[3] In the 1770s, Burrows Dowdney, a clockmaker, engraved his name and city in a banner on the clock dials he produced, directly below the axis on which the hands spun, making it difficult to glance at the clock without being reminded of who had constructed it. Other clockmakers also engraved at least their names and their city on the faces of their clocks.[4]

Early American cabinetmakers and other artisans also advertised their work by marking or branding it. Although cabinetmakers, like other artisans, did so partly out of a sense of pride, they also wanted to make sure that potential customers would know where to buy their goods. Their paper labels often closely resembled newspaper advertisements and handbills: not content with a simple identifying mark, they promoted their products by attaching full-fledged advertisements to them. Jonathan Gostelowe’s label from circa 1783 was typical.[5] It advertised his cabinets and chairs, notified his customers of his location, and featured an ornate border. At least seventy of Philadelphia’s cabinetmakers marked their furniture in the eighteenth century.[6] Sometimes they stamped their furniture or even simply signed their name with chalk. Many affixed paper labels of varying degrees of complexity. Of the seventy known Philadelphia cabinetmakers who marked their furniture, two used handwritten labels and twenty-six used printed labels of varying degrees of ornateness. Even a handwritten label could do more than simply identify an artisan, as Henry Rigby’s partial label suggests. A federal-style walnut card table most likely constructed between 1780 and 1790 bears a partial handwritten label: “Henry Rigby Cabinetmaker on Front Street one door above the …” It is suggestive that Rigby at least wanted to list his address so anybody who saw or used the card table and found it pleasing could visit his workshop to order more furniture.[7] Similarly, sometime around 1790 saddler Jesse Sharples adapted his broadside to serve as a label by pasting it inside the lid of trunks he made and sold. He positioned the label such that anybody opening one of his trunks would be sure to see the advertisement.[8]

It was not necessary for an advertiser to have made an item in order to place a label on it. In addition to the skilled artisans who marked their teapots and highboy chests, enterprising retailers also had labels printed and attached them to the goods they sold. For instance, the silversmith Joseph Richardson imported boxes of English weights and scales in the 1750s, affixing his own label to the inside lid of the box where it would be protected from damage yet easily viewed every time the purchaser and his associates opened the box to use the scales. His label also drew merchants’ attention by including a list of the exchange rates for a dozen currencies that merchants and others mightencounter.[9] (Richardson complemented these labels with a short advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in September 1770: “To be SOLD by JOSEPH RICHARDSON, Goldsmith, A Parcel of Money Scales & Weights.” Martha Gandy Fales, a Richardson biographer, reports that the silversmith began placing similar advertisements a quarter century earlier.) In addition, John Elliott, Jr., ran a shop where, according to the labels on them, he sold “by Wholesale and Retail, Looking Glasses In neat Mahogany Frames of American Manufacture,” and also a wider selection of goods and services, including “Painters’ Colours,” varnishes, and even “a general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines.” [10] His label even stated that “Old Glass” could be “new quicksilvered and framed as usual” in his shop.

Just like trade cards, billheads, and other stand-alone advertisements circulating in early America, labels and maker’s marks continued to operate as advertising long after purchases took place. In fact, by attaching labels to frequently used items, advertisers likely increased the chances that they would be seen regularly. Consumers purchased more than goods that caught their interest. Those goods often doubled as advertisements that artisans, retailers, and merchants managed to insert into the daily lives of their customers, sometimes into their most private spaces away from the public commerce of the marketplace.  Advertisements were not confined to the pages of newspapers.  Instead, early Americans encountered a rich visual landscape of advertising all around them.


[1] Carl Jacobs, Guide to American Pewter (New York: McBride Company, 1957), 88.

[2] Jacobs, American Pewter, 106.

[3] C. Jordan Thorn, The Handbook of American Silver and Pewter Marks (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1949), 243.

[4] Burrows Dowdney, clock dial, (Philadelphia: ca. 1770), plate 43 in Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Henry N. Abrams for Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992).

[5] This label can be dated between 1783 and 1789 since Gostelowe worked at the Church Alley address during that period. Cliveden, NT75.1.1, Gostelowe Chest. See also William C. Ketchum with the Museum of American Folk Art, American Cabinetmakers: Marked American Furniture, 1640-1940 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995); and Edward Stratton Holloway, American Furniture and Decoration: Colonial and Federal (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1928), plate 42.

[6] I compiled a list of Philadelphia cabinetmakers active during the eighteenth century from Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[7] Henry Rigby, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library; and Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[8] For the Sharples broadside, see Jesse Sharples, Jesse Sharples, Takes this Method of Informing trhe Public in General, and His Friends in Particular, that He Continues to Carry On the Saddling Business, as Usual, in All Its Various Branches, at his Saddle Manufactory, in the North-West Corner of Chesnut and Third-Streets, Four Doors from the Bank, and Opposite the Cross-Keys (Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1790). For the Sharples broadside pasted in a trunk, see Jesse Sharples, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.

[9] Martha Gandy Fales, Joseph Richardson and Family: Philadelphia Silversmiths (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1974), fig. 31.

[10] John Elliott, Jr., Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.

April 21


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 21 - 4:21:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766)

“A sprightly, active Negro Woman about 24 Years of Age.”

This advertisement offered an African American woman in her early twenties who could fulfill the duties of “House Business.” Initially this advertisement shocked me, because at the top a sloop (one-masted sailboat) was for sale, yet just beneath that a woman was for sale. The normality of this pairing seems completely unfathomable to me. To read an advertisement for a ship that then immediately jumped to selling a woman seems absurd. To dehumanize someone to the point of equating her to a ship is a hard concept for modern readers to grasp. To most readers of the time, however, this would not have been so disconcerting.

There is a common misconception in the United States that the northern colonies were free of slavery. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, it was not until 1771 that the “Massachusetts Colonial assembly passes a resolution calling for the end of the importation of African slaves into the colony. Governor Thomas Hutchinson refuses the measure.” During the late eighteenth century in the north there were early attempts to eradicate slavery, but they were not always generally supported. According to an article written by Nicholas Boston and Jennifer Hallam, “By 1804, all Northern states had voted to abolish the institution of slavery within their borders. In most of these states, however, abolition was not immediate.” Boston and Hallam go on to explain that it took until the first half of the nineteenth century for many African Americans in the North to achieve status as free people.

In the late eighteenth century slaves began achieving their freedom in Massachusetts through judicial law. In the case of Quock Walker, Walker sued for his freedom after being beaten by a man claiming to be his master after his then-deceased master had promised him his freedom. In 1781, the court found that Walker was indeed free under the state constitution, making it evident that the Massachusetts court system now viewed slaves equal in the eyes of the law. When this advertisement was posted in 1766, slavery in Massachusetts was just starting to become scrutinized and a judicial debate. In the years following, advertisements like this one would become less and less popular up until the North’s complete abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century.



I agree with Trevor. It is jarring to see a sloop and an enslaved woman offered together in the same advertisement, both of them items for sale from an eighteenth-century perspective. While I believe that Trevor tells the more important story in making and elaborating on that observation, this advertisement also offers an opportunity to examine the manner in which colonists used print and thought about the placement of advertisements in newspapers.

Today we usually expect advertisements to have a single purpose or, at the very least, for all the elements to tie together in some cohesive way. In the eighteenth century, however, advertisers bought a certain amount of space – often a “square” or multiple squares – and inserted whatever information they wished to bring to public attention. Sometimes the separate parts of a square were related; other times they were not. Earlier this week, for instance, Trevor examined an advertisement in which a shopkeeper first issued a call that he wanted to purchase “POT-ASH” before launching a lengthier promotion of the goods he sold. In today’s advertisement, the sloop and the enslaved woman were only tenuously linked: they were both “items” for sale by the same auctioneer.

That auctioneer happened to be one of the printers of the Boston Evening-Post. It’s telling that even those who produced the newspaper did not see any need to divide up the announcements of these sales. In general, an assortment of advertisements with varying purposes appeared mixed together and undifferentiated in colonial newspapers. Neither printers nor readers expected any system of classification that placed similar advertisements together on the page.

Trevor was shocked by the advertisement as it appears above. We discussed his reaction during a meeting in my office before he wrote about it. Earlier this week he submitted a draft of today’s entry, which I approved with some minor revisions. It was not until this morning, however, when I examined the entire issue of the Boston Evening-Post in order to gain more context in preparation of writing my own commentary that I discovered that today’s advertisement was actually a portion of a longer advertisement, but the database had divided it in half. (Given the format of the advertisement, it’s understandable why that happened.) The entire advertisement also included a “Public Vendue” for seventy bolts of damaged fabric. For me, this makes the advertisement Trevor chose even more stark: an enslaved woman appeared last in an advertisement for a ship and damaged goods being sold so the insurers could recoup some of their losses.

Apr 21 - Entire Advert
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766).

April 20


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 20 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766)

“The Trustees of the Estate of John Butler.”

Today’s advertisement regards a legal notice alerting all colonists that John Butler died and his account was being settled. Colonial Americans struggled to settle estate cases, especially involving those that did not have a prewritten will. In an article discussing “English Law in American Land Research,” Sandra Hargreaves Luebking says, “The colonies lacked the judges, lawyers, law schools, and elaborate court system to implement English property law in all its complexity, but most of the basic concepts crossed the Atlantic and exist in the land records genealogists use.” The system brought to the colonies from Great Britain was very complicated and the average colonist lacked the knowledge to understand.

The advertisement began with a dated notice – April 16, 1766 – that asked “Creditors of said Butler, to meet at the British Coffee-House in Boston, … then and there to transact such Matters and Things relating to said Debtor’s Estate as may be thought necessary.” In the following paragraph it requests that all indebted to John Butler pay the same to Daniel Leonard, an attorney at law, who was handling the estate. It then goes onto threaten that those “who neglect making Payment, may depend on being sued to July Court, without further Notice.” This was something that I found unique to colonial advertisements and almost nonexistent in modern advertisements.

I was curious about how Butler and other debtors paid the money they owed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, in colonial America coins were the original primary form of currency, although they were not always in circulation. The first use of paper money was in “bills of credit.” These notes were redeemable in coin. One problem with these bills was that they led many colonists into debt that would be hard to repay. A project by Louis Jordan of Notre Dame states, “In 1749 the British government sent Massachusetts Bay Colony two tons of Spanish silver coins and ten tons of British coppers (primarily 1749 dated halfpence) as reimburse for assistance they provided to the Lewisburg expedition on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during the French and Indian War.” This shows that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was given a chance to start using silver as their main currency again. Furthermore, according to, Alvin Rabushka’s book, Taxation in Colonial America, “Under the 1749 Massachusetts Currency Reform, all debts and contracts from March 31, 1750, onward would be payable only in silver coin, and any court judgments brought for the recovery of debts would be converted into silver coin at the specified exchange rate for the different tenors.”

This leads me to believe that because Butler owned and ran his own shop with multiple forms of currencies with different exchange rates coming and going it would be easy to fall into debt and then struggle to escape it with the new act requiring only silver currency. The problem did not get any better once the colonies declared independence. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, during the Revolutionary War, the new nation issued too much money, causing inflation and by the end of the war the paper money was almost worthless. In the time leading up to the war the fluctuating value of money could explain why John Butler was in such debt. Furthermore, it would explain why he was not only in deb himself, but had customers who were in debt to him and expected to repay what they owe after his death.



Estate and probate notices were a common type of advertisement that appeared in colonial newspapers, often (depending on the newspaper) as frequently as advertisements for consumer goods and services. This sort of notice, complete with its stern language threatening further legal action, may seem unfamiliar to Trevor and other modern readers, but such notices were largely unremarkable alongside other advertisements in the colonial era.

Trevor has identified some of the reasons why it was easy for colonists to fall into debt. Certainly the lack of hard currency played a significant role. It also led to networks of credit: within cities and villages, throughout the colonies, and across the Atlantic. The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century occurred, in part, because merchants extended credit to retailers and, in turn, retailers extended credit to consumers. Appeals to price became a standard part of eighteenth-century advertisements, but they were often accompanied by specifications that retailers offered credit to tempt potential customers into making purchases (or sometimes explicitly stated that low prices could be had in exchange for cash, perhaps to avoid some of the problems raised in today’s advertisement).

The Economic History Association offers an overview of “Credit in the Colonial American Economy.”

April 19


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 19 - 4:18:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 18, 1766).

“Who has good white WINE by the Quarter Cask.”

The history of alcohol in colonial America is a long story of appreciation and sometimes conflict. Today I’m focusing on colonists’ appreciation of wine and other forms of alcohol.

According to Colonial Williamsburg, in 1770 “the colonies already had more than 140 rum distilleries, making about 4.8 million gallons annually.” Colonists’ dependence on alcohol was not necessarily due to alcoholism but due to poor water conditions. A dependence on beer and cider grew in Britain because crowded cities often did not have enough clean drinking water for all citizens, so they would resort to drinking beer and ciders. According to Melissa Swindell, “Alcohol-based drinks typically wouldn’t spread disease, and they had a much longer ‘shelf-life’ than non-alcoholic beverages.” This, combined with limited knowledge on the health effects of alcohol, made it the perfect hydration substitute to water.

The importance on alcohol consumption in colonial America also coincided with a lack of consistent clean drinking water. Colonial Williamsburg also reports that in 1768 “Virginians exported to Britain a little more than thirteen tons of wine while importing 396,580 gallons of rum from overseas, and another 78,264 from other North American colonies.” For every ton there are 264.48 gallons, so this means that while exporting thirteen tons (3,438.24 gallons) of wine the colonies were still importing far more rum than they were exporting wine.

Founders like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not shy to indulge in alcohol consumption. According to Colonial Williamsburg once again, John Adams started his day with a glass of hard cider and Thomas Jefferson “imported fine libations from France.”

All of this suggests there was not the current stigma that alcohol was sinful or a moral failing. Cutter’s advertisement was not out of place, nor taboo, because it referenced alcohol, but merely a normal part of daily life.



When Trevor “chose” this advertisement, I wasn’t certain what he might do with it, although I assumed he might choose one of the three commodities listed and offer a closer look at its role in colonial life and commerce. That was indeed the strategy he chose, demonstrating how a short reference to “good white WINE by the Quarter Cask” led him to learn about not only alcohol but also about public health conditions in Britain and America in the eighteenth century.

I say that Trevor “chose” (intentionally in quotation marks) this advertisement because he really had no choice at all. Regular visitors will remember that our methodology states that all featured advertisements must come from the most recently published newspaper exactly 250 years ago and advertisements cannot be featured more than once. Given those parameters, today’s advertisement had to come from the New-Hampshire Gazette. Compared to larger publications from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, only a handful of advertisements appeared in the New-Hampshire Gazette. All of the other advertisements for consumer goods and services in this issue have already been featured previously, either by Trevor or, because advertisements often ran for several weeks, by previous guest curators. As a result, Trevor “chose” this advertisement. His work with it demonstrates that an advertisement need not be long or elaborate to help us learn about life in colonial America.

I appreciate that these circumstances presented another opportunity to reflect on the differences among colonial newspapers printed in the 1760s. To one extent or another, all of them included advertising (and even relied on advertising revenue to keep publishing), but the larger urban ports had newspapers overflowing with advertisements for consumer goods and services while such advertisements were not as prominent a feature in newspapers in smaller towns.

April 18


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 18 - 4:18:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 18, 1766).

“A few Barrels of good BROWN SUGAR.”

Richard Champney advertised “A few Barrels of South-Carolina PITCH, and a few Barrels of good BROWN SUGAR.” Soon after Columbus encountered the New World, Europeans realized the potential for sugar cane production. In the following years many European countries worked to colonize and establish sugar plantations throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

This advertisement spurred me to look into who Richard Champney was. I found a letter written to George Washington from a Richard Champney. The letter does not confirm that it is the same Richard Champney as posted the advertisement, but it was addressed from Portsmouth and addressed sugar colonies in South America. Within the letter Champney expresses that the “Petitioners have for a number of years past been very considerably concerned and interested in the Trade to the Colony of Essequebo and Demarara on the Coast of Guiana in the West Indies formerly under the Government of the States of Holland.” This is interesting because the colony referenced in the letter was notorious for being a major producer of sugar cane throughout the eightheenth century. Champney’s advertisement combined with his letter to George Washington lead me to wonder if he was working to become a more prominent distributor of sugar in New Hampshire and beyond.



Rather than situating today’s advertisement in the 1760s, Trevor takes a longer view of commerce in the early modern Atlantic world. In so doing, he addresses a misconception about motivations for exploration and colonization that I often discover during the first weeks of my courses on colonial America and the Atlantic world: namely, that America was settled (exclusively) for religious freedom. While religion was a primary motivation for many colonists, popular narratives all too often overlook the role that trade and commerce played in exploration and colonization.

Many scholars argue that Europeans first ventured into the Atlantic in search of sugar. They had previously obtained sugar via long distance trade with Asia, a trade with a hub in the Middle East. This made sugar expensive, so enterprising Europeans wanted to eliminate the middlemen. They wanted direct access to supplies of sugar themselves, and finding a water route to Asia seemed like one of the best means of gaining that access. Europeans did not, however, immediately venture across the Atlantic in search of sugar. Instead, they explored the African coast (setting up trading posts to obtain other goods) and sailed to island chains in the eastern Atlantic (including the Cape Verde Islands, the Canary Islands, and Madeira), where they established plantations to cultivate sugar (which, in turn, initiated the involuntary migration of unfree laborers). By the time Columbus voyaged to the New World, Europeans had gained a lot of experience looking for commercial opportunities and establishing colonies and plantations with the intention of increasing their access to sugar. Setting up such more plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean was an extension of activities already underway for decades.

Richard Champney advertised sugar to colonists who settled New Hampshire, in part, because of the importance of sugar as a commodity over the previous three centuries. An everyday staple in the modern world, it was a commodity that inspired exploration and settlement in the early modern period.

April 17


What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 17 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766).

“Cash and a good Price given for POT-ASH.”

When I first came across this advertisement there were several things that intrigued me. The first thing that caught my eye was “POT-ASH.” Potash is the common term for the nutrient form of the element potassium, which today is commonly used as a fertilizer. However, according to William I. Roberts III, in colonial America potash was essential for the production of “crown or flint glass, soft soap, various drugs and dyes, and saltpetre.” The opening line of the advertisement also caught my interest because he is offering to buy potash not selling it. The rest of the advertisement then goes on to offer a multitude of goods from window glass to flour and iron. This interested me because one of the first items for sale in Dennie’s shop is indigo. During the colonial period indigo was a major export from the colonies to England. Dennie’s advertisement exemplifies the growing demand for potash and other products from the colonies throughout the late eighteenth century.



Why did William Dennie want potash? Did he plan to use it himself in a business he operated? Or was he seeking to resell it and make a profit?

Trevor provided a link to an article that describes potash as “the principal industrial chemical of the eighteenth century” and indicates that it “was practically the only alkali used in the textile industries for bleaching linens, scouring woolens, and printing calicoes.” Printing patterns on textiles was not a common industry in early America (though some manufacturers did experiment sporadically by the end of the eighteenth century), but fullers – like the silk-dyer and scowerer from an advertisement featured last week – certainly bleached linens and scoured woolens. Perhaps Dennie intended to sell potash – along with “choice Indigo” to colonial fullers. As Trevor points out, his advertisement did include a variety of materials produced in the colonies (“Kippin’s Snuff” and “Philadelphia Flour,” for instance) that were transported from one region to another to be sold.

Perhaps Dennie had other plans. Maybe he issued a call for potash so he could export it to England. Again, from the linked article about American potash manufacture before the American Revolution, “[s]ince potash was obtained from wood ashes, the American colonies would appear to have been an obvious source of a product that was becoming increasingly vital to Great Britain as her industries grew and diversified.” Until a decade before the Revolution – about the time this advertisement was published – England depended on Germany and the Baltic to supply its potash. Dennie may have been on the cusp of this transition, helping to usher in the colonies as an increasingly important supplier of potash to England.

The advertisement does not make clear exactly why William Dennie issued a call for potash, but that he offered “Cash and a good Price” does indicate that demand existed for this product. Most colonial advertisements for goods and services attempted to incite demand. This one demonstrates existing demand for a particular product.

Interview with Guest Curator Kathryn J. Severance

Kathryn J. Severance has completed her second and final week as guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project.  As we say farewell to her, let’s take a few moments to find out more about her  behind-the-scenes contributions to this project.

Adverts 250: This was your second week as guest curator.  How did it compare to the first time?  Did you make any changes to your research or writing process based on what you learned the first time?  

Kathryn J. Severance: I think that finding advertisements for this week was a lot more challenging. Also, I think that I had more of a vision in mind while looking for advertisements the first time that I curated, whereas this time I was a little bit more limited because there were fewer newspapers being published by my second Adverts 250 week. The first week in starting the process, I was kind of confused and did not do it correctly at first. Working with Prof. Keyes allowed me to learn how to correctly write posts and locate eighteenth-century advertisements to write about. He also instructed me a lot more the first week on where to go with my posts if I was unsure.

I think that during my second week, I knew how to look at an advertisement and come up with something to discuss. This is something that I learned in the process of doing the project. I also think that my Twitter work this week was a bit different than during my first session. I did more visual posts during my second week, while I did more word- and hashtag-based posts during my first week. I’ve found that people often respond well to visuals, so I’ve gravitated towards using visuals over words.

My research process was lengthier during my first week of curating. I think that this is because I was often unsure as to which resources to seek out. By my second week, I realized that Colonial Williamsburg has many strong resources that can be cited, so I often turned to that for background information. I was also, in general, better at avoiding less scholarly sources during my second week, though originally I did run into an issue before my final version of the post on the runaway Irish indentured servant man was done on Thursday. With advice from Prof. Keyes, I was able to fix this issue and locate a more scholarly and accurate source on the topic before it was posted.

Adverts 250: What is the most important or most interesting thing that you learned about early American history throughout the process of working on this project?  

Kathryn J. Severance: I think that coming across the Irish indentured servant advertisement from Thursday, April 14 was kind of jarring and interesting for me, as someone whose ancestors on my father’s side came from Ireland. My ancestors came to America much later, but in emigrating they experienced a lot of trying conditions and my great-great-grandfather worked at a dock for a very low wage. Though neither my great-grandfather nor his father were indentured servants, my connection with the Irish made me very interested in the subject of indentured servitude and the means by which many English companies sponsored settlers’ journeys to America, where, once they arrived, they would work for free for a period of time between four to six years to pay off their debt from traveling to America. Exploring the topic of indentured servants also made me realize that slavery was not the only form of unfree labor in place during the eighteenth century in America.

Adverts 250: What is the most important thing you learned about “doing history” as a result of working on this project?  

Kathryn J. Severance: I learned many different important things while taking part in the Adverts 250 project as a guest curator. The main thing that I learned about “doing history” while engaging in the processes associated with the project was that history is sometimes about a lot of trial and error and collaborating with fellow historians helps keep you on your toes and make your material stronger. Working with Prof. Keyes, who is well-versed in both colonial history and in using digital means to make history more accessible to the public and fellow historians, helped me gauge what sorts of advertisements would be the most interesting. It also helped me ensure that my historical discussions about the advertisements were accurate and that my references to online sources were correctly cited. Historiography is a very important part of “doing history” and I also found that the historians who responded to my Adverts 250 posts on Twitter provided interesting views, perspectives, and commentaries on the discussions.

Adverts 250: What is your favorite advertisement from your two weeks as guest curator?  Why?

Kathryn J. Severance: My favorite advertisement from my February week and my April week as guest curator is the Massachusetts Gazette advertisement that I featured on February 13, 2016. I thought it was very interesting to compare the list of goods to a modern-day yard sale. I think that making modern-day connections to historical things helps to engage audiences who are not historians to the project. In the field of history, comparisons tend to be something that is good for drumming up interest and helping the general public understand the differences between different societies and periods of time in history within a particular country. Also, I genuinely had fun researching and writing on the topic of indigo, a plant that was used to dye clothing blue, as blue is my favorite color and I’m glad that became an option for people in the Colonial period in America. I made a second reference to indigo in my second week as guest curator for my April 13 post.

Adverts 250:  Is there anything else you would like to share with visitors to the Adverts 250 Project?

Kathryn J. Severance: As a journalist, this project has taught me some interesting things about colonial newspapers. I feel that it has enriched my background on the print newspaper industry, something that I am very passionate about, even as someone who is part of a generation who has grown up using social media and other online resources. Using digital means to bring print newspaper history back is very valuable to both history and to journalism. I appreciate the fact that this project aids in keeping print culture alive, something that is sometimes a struggle in the twenty-first century. This opportunity has been something that will help to shape my overall understanding of the field of public history and the vast opportunities that are available within this field.


Thank you, Kathryn.  You’ve made some insightful contributions to the project.  As a Mass Communications major and History minor, you’ve brought a new perspective to our discussions in class.

Kathryn was recently inducted into the Assumption College chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Society.  She continues to tweet at @yesterdaysnewsK.

April 16

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 16 - 4:14:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 14, 1766).

“All Sorts of Garden Seeds.”

This advertisement sold goods that had been imported from London. The goods featured included various types of garden seeds. The advertisement listed “Pease and Beans, … split Pease, Hemp, Rape and Canary Bird Seed, red Clover and Herds Grass Seed.” Peas and beans were eaten. Hemp was used for a variety of things, including making rope. Rapeseed was a yellow flowering plant used as birdseed in colonial America, though it was used in China and Africa as a vegetable. Canary seed was used in conjunction with rapeseed for birdseed. Grass seed was used for planting grass and feeding livestock.


Apr 16 - Rapeseed

During the eighteenth century, the vegetables and herbs that were prepared, served, and eaten were often grown in home gardens. Due to the fact that settlers were still arriving and settling in, there were not many strong strains of familiar plants available, so plant seeds were imported from England. Colonial American gardens were grown in the style of European gardens due to the fact that inhabitants arrived to the colonies from Europe and were used to practicing garden cultivation in this manner. Most plants grown in the Colonies came from heirloom strains, indicating that they were species that had been passed down for many generations. A Colonial Williamsburg study has revealed that today all eighteenth-century varieties of broccoli, cabbage, and kale are extinct and no longer grown, though a great many other eighteenth-century vegetables are still grown at different locations throughout the United States.


For more information on cultivating a garden using early American techniques and understandings, attend out Old Sturbridge Village’s Garden Thyme: Vermicomposting event at 10 A.M. today or other Garden Thyme events offered the third Saturday of every month.



In addition to “All Sorts of Garden Seeds,” Bethiah Oliver sold “a general Assortment of Glass, Delph and Stone Ware, Lynn Shoes, best Bohea Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and all other Groceries” that had been “Imported in the last Ships from London.” As we have seen in recent weeks, when it came to consumer culture colonists had a complicated relationship with England in 1765 and 1766. The protests concerning the Stamp Act spilled over into advertisements, sometimes as advertisers promoted locally produced goods and other times when they gave directions to their shops that invoked familiarity with recent events (such as stating that a shop was located “Near Liberty-Bridge“). Many colonists were energized to boycott goods imported from Britain, hoping to gain English merchants – who were represented in Parliament – as allies as politics and commerce converged.

On the other hand, many advertisements in 1765 and 1766, including today’s advertisement from Bethiah Oliver, continued to use formulaic language: “Imported in the last Ships from London.” Those ships transported more than just consumer goods. They also carried news from the center of the British Empire, including news of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Oliver’s advertisements appeared on the final page of this issue of the Boston Evening-Post. The previous page included an article that announced the “Good News!” It also demonstrates how the “glorious News of the Repeal of the STAMP-ACT” spread throughout the colonies as vessels moved from port to port, bringing letters and newspapers that were then printed or reprinted. Still, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post knew that they did not yet have the entire story: “We hear a Packet was to sail from Falmouth for New York about the 11th of February, so that we may daily expect some further Particulars of this interesting affair.” Ships from England continued to bring more goods, but they also brought more news.

Apr 16 - Good News 4:14:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 14, 1766).

Bethiah Oliver advertised “All Sorts of Garden Seeds” to customers who continued in the seasonal rhythms of colonial life. I wonder if more potential customers might have seen her advertisement as they scrambled to read the news for themselves. Even if that was not the case, her commercial notice offers a glimpse of everyday life continuing even as momentous news unfolded.


April 15

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 15 - 4:14:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (April 14, 1766).



This advertises goods, more specifically, household furniture and kitchen items from the home of the late Captain Morley Harison. This “public Vendue” was different from some others due to the fact that an individual had passed away, which contrasts with “public Vendue” of goods in the scenario when people were moving away. This advertisement does not provide a complete listing of the “HOUSEHOLD AND KITCHEN FURNITURE” that would be sold, unlike the advertisement from February 10 for “House Furniture” that I previously featured.

Both modern-day and eighteenth-century kitchens contained tools that can be used to prepare food and aid in cooking. Modern technologies have changed the nature of kitchens and changed the processes involved in food preparation, meaning that unlike in the eighteenth century, women are not forced to spend all day in the kitchen to provide meals for the family. Innovations such as ovens, crockpots, and microwaves mean that food can be heated up and ready to serve without someone having to stir a pot all day.

Instead of having a stove to cook the meals, boil water, and heat things up, eighteenth-century kitchens were outfitted with a hearth for cooking. The hearth was a recess in the wall that was placed at the bottom of a chimney. Colonists used a contained fire in the hearth to cook food. A spit, a tool that held a pot or tea kettle over a fire, aided in boiling water. Flavor could be added to foods because of the mortar and pestle, a tool comprised of a sturdy bowl and a heavy stick that was used to crush and grind dried herbs and corn for meal preparation.

To share this information with young historians, here’s a lesson plan that outlines how to make historically-accurate comparisons between colonial and modern-day American kitchens.



I appreciate the way that Kathryn uses a brief reference to “HOUSEHOLD AND KITCHEN FURNITURE” to explore how kitchens have changed since the colonial period, in terms of both the types of equipment found in them and the labor involved in meal preparation. As she notes, a variety of technologies have reduced the amount of time we devote to preparing food.

We should not assume, however, that modern Americans hold a monopoly on devising ways to save time and reduce labor in the kitchen. Colonists also relied on a variety of technological innovations, though some of them seem quite antiquated or quaint to us today. Every time I have visited Fortress Louisbourg I have been mesmerized by the eighteenth-century spit jack in the kitchen of one of the homes in the village – and I was not only the one. Many visitors seemed as interested by everyday life and the tools used by settlers as they were excited to explore the military aspects of the fortress.

Apr 15 - Spit Jack
Spit Jack from the Collections of Colonial Williamsburg.

So, what is a spit jack? Meat was often cooked on a spit, but the spit had to be turned constantly in order to evenly cook the meat. (Think of rotisserie cooking today). This involved a fair amount of labor. Somebody from the household – the wife, a child, or a servant or slave – had to spend hours turning the spit. Mechanization made this unnecessary, freeing up that labor to be directed elsewhere. A mechanized spit turner – known as a spit jack – used a system of pulleys and weights to accomplish what otherwise would have done manually.


To see a spit jack in action, watch this video from Thomas Ironworks.