May 12

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

May 12 - 5:12:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (May 12, 1766).

“William Fisher, In CORNHILL, HAS imported a general Assortment of English Goods which he sells at the cheapest Rates.”

Today’s featured advertisement appears fairly short and relatively basic when compared to many of the more extensive advertisements that crowded the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers. William Fisher’s advertisement, however, was not unique. Many advertisers opted for this sort of short commercial notice. Some may not have been able to afford more space in the newspaper. Others may not have been as innovative in their thinking, compared to their competitors, about how to incite demand among potential customers. Some may have depended on networks of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to sustain their shops, believing that an abbreviated advertisement served as sufficient reminder of the wares they offered for sale.

I’ve chosen this advertisement to feature today as a means of correcting an oversight. In the process of selecting advertisements to examine I have privileged some and disproportionately excluded others, especially the plethora of short commercial notices that were familiar to colonial readers.

I’ve also selected this advertisement because even though it is short enough to fit entirely in a modern tweet it still incorporated three common marketing appeals that tell us about eighteenth-century consumer culture. Fisher made an appeal to price when he noted that “he sells at the cheapest Rates.” He expected that low prices would help to attract customers. He also stressed that he offered choices to his customers, “a general Assortment.” Upon visiting his shop customers could expect to make purchases based on their own tastes rather than accept whatever happened to be in stock. Fisher may not have found it necessary to pay to print an exhaustive list of his merchandise. Other shopkeepers already did so, which meant that Fisher could depend on readers already being familiar with what was available in Boston. Finally, he stated that he had “imported … English Goods.” Consuming wares imported from England helped colonists feel connected to fellow Britons on the other side of the Atlantic. Though they resided thousands of miles away, they shared a British identity.

William Fisher’s advertisement seems deceptively short considering how much it tells us about early American consumer culture.

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