What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“In your Paper of the 15th ult. I Advertised a Conditional SALE of my Houshold Furniture, &c.”
John Evitts packed so much into his open letter to Jonas Green, the printer of the Maryland Gazette, a letter reprinted in its entirety as an advertisement, that it is difficult to know where to start.
Let’s start by having a look at the genre of this advertisement. Although advertisements were not grouped together with other similar advertisements in the eighteenth century (legal notices with other legal notices; runaway slaves with other runaway slaves; consumer goods with other consumer goods), they did fall into several broad categories easily recognizable by readers. Advertisers occasionally played with form and genre by dividing the advertising space they purchased into two sections and submitting copy that pursued two different purposes, but within the distinct sections of such advertisements they usually relied on standard or formulaic wording.
To some extent, John Evitts departs from that practice, perhaps as the result of his advertisement originating as a letter (itself an interesting transformation of genre). His notice combines aspects of standard advertisements for vendue sales with aspects of standard advertisements for runaway wives (although it does not name his wife), but those elements comprised only the last two of four paragraphs. Either or both of the third and fourth paragraphs would not have appeared out of place as standalone advertisements.
Evitt’s letter-cum-advertisement, however, included much more. In the second paragraph he provided details about his ongoing dispute with his wife. While it might have seemed questionable to air private affairs in the public prints, Evitts may have felt that he had nothing to lose. After all, he was certain “that many of yours” were already aware of “the unhappy Difference subsisting between my Wife and me.” Annapolis was not a big town. Word got around. Perhaps Evitts felt he was better served to address gossip directly in the newspaper. It also gave him an opportunity to score some points. Despite the personal embarrassment he may have experienced from making a public acknowledgment about the disharmony in his household, his letter was calculated to diminish the reputation of his wife (at least from his rendition of events, which may or may not have matched what actually happened). Evitts stated that he had “endeavoured for a Reconciliation,” but that his wife “absolutely refused.” Furthermore, she responded with “insulting Language,” hardly becoming of a woman in the eighteenth century. In addition, he ahd been “insulted by her Friends.” Most advertisements for runaway wives were as formulaic as the third paragraph, but Evitts provided more details elsewhere in his advertisement.
It seems that Evitts was preparing to sell his house and his “Houshold Furniture, &c.” as a result of the discord with his wife. He had advertised this sale several weeks earlier, but, unfortunately for him, it “has not succeeded to my Wish and Expectation.” One of the most difficult parts of studying eighteenth-century advertising concerns the reception and effectiveness of commercial notices. Did they work? Very rarely did advertisers give any sort of indication about the results their marketing efforts generated. In this case, however, Evitts did report a rather disappointing result. It was possible that his advertisement was not especially effective, but, given the very public nature of the squabble with his wife, it was also possible that neighbors and other residents did not want to insert themselves into the Evittses’ domestic antagonisms. Whatever the explanation, Evitts retained hope that advertising could yield successful results. He sent the subsequent advertisement, the fourth paragraph of his open letter, desiring that it “may prove more effectual” than the first.