August 25

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

Aug 25 - 8:25:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (August 25, 1766).

“All Customers … may depend upon being as well served by Letter as if present.”

In an age of online shopping, modern consumers are accustomed to the convenience of purchasing goods to be delivered directly to their homes without visiting stores to examine the products they are buying. In the evolution of shopping, this seems like a natural progression from catalog shopping, which has been a popular means of distributing merchandise to consumers for more than a century.

Both means of acquiring goods have been considered simultaneously disruptive and revolutionary, but such narratives obscure continuities with consumer culture in earlier eras. Consider, for instance, this brief advertisement for “All Sorts of West-India Goods, and Grocery” placed by John Jenkins. He informed “All Customers, in Town and Country” that they “may depend upon being as well served by Letter as if present.” In effect, Jenkins offered an early variation of mail order delivery. Customers wrote to inform him which items they wished to purchase. In turn, he had the items delivered to them. While such an arrangement was not a standard business practice mentioned in most advertisements, it was common enough in the 1760s that customers would have readily recognized this service.

Jenkins’s advertisement does differ in one significant way from others by merchants and shopkeepers who solicited orders through the post: its brevity. Most such advertisements included much more extensive lists of the goods that had been imported and were available for sale. Jenkins, on the other hand, did not specify any particulars. He did not name any specific merchandise. Why not? Could he not afford a lengthier advertisement? How effective was such a truncated advertisement? Did potential customers write to him in hopes he stocked the items they desired? Jenkins certainly offered a convenience to his customers, but it may have been negated by not providing enough information about his wares to guide customers in making their choices.

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