July 1

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

Jul 1 - 6:30:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (June 30, 1766).

“RIBBONS, … best English RIGGING, … neat silver WATCHES, … genuine red PORT WINE.”

Shopkeeper Nathaniel Bird published a dense advertisement that listed dozens of items for sale, everything from textiles to dancing shoes to ink powder to hourglasses. He loosely organized the merchandise, but that did little to make it easier to navigate the extensive list of goods he stocked “At his New Store in Thames-Street.”

Four items do stand out from the rest: ribbons, rigging, watches, and port wine. Each of them, like Nathaniel Bird’s name, was set in capitals intended to draw attention. I have previously argued that in most cases advertisers wrote their own copy but printers took the responsibility for its appearance and format, though the advertisers likely gave special instructions on occasion. This would appear to be one of those instances. It seems unlikely that a printer (or an apprentice or anybody else working in the shop) would encounter a list of merchandise and on a whim decide to set a small number of items in capitals. More likely, the advertiser specified that certain items be capitalized.

Why those particular items? It is impossible to determine for certain. Perhaps Bird intended to highlight the diversity of goods he sold, the various departments in his shop a century before the concept of the department store was invoked. Many similar list advertisements include textiles exclusively. By listing other items in capitals, Bird drew attention to the portions of the advertisement that promoted other sorts of goods: a variety of adornments to accompany the textiles (RIBBONS), supplies for outfitting vessels (RIGGING), devices for keeping or measuring time (WATCHES), and imported groceries and spirits (PORT WINE). Bird may have been experimenting with a rudimentary method of cataloging his merchandise as a means of demonstrating the various needs and desires that could be fulfilled in his shop without having to visit other establishments.

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