September 28

GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Commesso

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

Providence Gazette (September 27, 1766).

“Said Greene, wants … Flax-Seed, for which he will pay Cash, or any of the above Goods.”

Caleb Greene posted not only what items he had to sell, but also certain commodities he wanted to acquire. This stood out to me because most of the advertisements I have examined simply listed the various goods offered at a certain shop, most of them having just been imported. However, Greene’s advertisement showed his role as a consumer; he hoped to barter for “a Quantity of good and well-cleaned Flax-Seed.” As we have seen in many other advertisements, many shopkeepers only dealt with cash, but Greene noted that he was willing to trade his freshly imported goods.

This process was widely known as barter. Although it was common, the practice of barter was often much more difficult and sometimes more costly. According to David T. Flynn in “Credit in the Colonial American Economy,” what made bartering so much more complicated was a need for a “double coincidence of wants,” which was essential for the barter to take place. In other words, “For exchange to occur in a barter situation each party must have the good desired by its trading partner.”



Colonists resorted to a variety of mechanisms for payment in their financial transactions. Sometimes they paid in cash, other times they relied on credit, and on many occasions they bartered one sort of goods for another. The first two types of transactions appeared most often in newspapers advertisements during the eighteenth century. Many shopkeepers and others who provided goods and services specified that they sold their wares “for ready Money,” as Caleb Greene did in the advertisement Nick selected for today. Sometimes they specified that they accepted cash only, signaling to potential customers that credit was not an option. The consumer revolution, however, occurred in part because merchants, shopkeepers, and customers became enmeshed in networks of credit that often originated in England and crossed the Atlantic to the colonies, extending to urban ports, towns and villages, and the colonial frontier. Advertisements sometimes specified that potential customers could purchase goods “on short credit” or offered the options of cash or credit.

To what extent did proposals to barter appear in eighteenth-century advertisements? Shopkeepers and other suggested barter less often than cash or credit, but not so infrequently that barter would have been considered uncommon or extraordinary.  (See advertisements previously featured on February 7, February 22, March 1, May 19July 14, and August 4.) Financial ledgers from the period, as well as household accounts, also suggest that many colonists continued to resort to bartering throughout much of the eighteenth century, even given the advantages offered by both cash and credit. Nick has already indicated that bartering required a “double coincidence of wants” that would have made such exchanges less attractive than cash or credit. In this advertisement, for instance, Greene did not offer to barter for just any commodities. He offered to trade “any of the above Goods” specifically for “a Quantity of good and well-cleaned Flax-Seed.” Only prospective customers in possession of that commodity were invited to barter with Greene. Despite that obstacle, placing an advertisement in the Providence Gazette increased the likelihood that Greene would indeed encounter a bartering partner who possessed the commodity he desired. Although Greene’s primary purpose in placing his advertisement was to sell a variety of goods, it may have also resulted in obtaining the “Flax-Seed” he wanted thanks to a successful bartering transaction.

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