October 18

GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar

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

oct-18-10181766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (October 18, 1766).

“As people have heretofore been obliged to send their Money to Boston and New-York …”

This advertisement gave a long list of much of the merchandise sold by Thompson and Arnold at their shop in Providence. The shopkeepers were looking for customers who were in a financial position that they did not need to barter or buy on credit; their imported goods were “TO BE SOLD, FOR READY MONEY ONLY.” They stated that previously the residents of Providence would have had to travel to Boston and New York to acquire many of the goods in the advertisement, but now they could come to their shop and buy them in town and for a fair price, one that was cheaper than found in Boston or New York.

They tried to entice consumers in Providence with their abundance of goods that they sold and with two other advertising techniques that are very familiar today. First, they emphasized the fact that potential customers did not have to travel far to get them. They also promised low prices. Today consumers often expect prices to be more expensive in urban place. The same was true for the colonists; being able to get these goods close to home for a reasonable price was enticing.

As a second strategy, they compared their prices to other stores in Providence with the same goods. Today, consumers love comparing pricing and trying to get the best deals. Thompson and Arnold knew that this would be an effective tactic because it would draw people in and they could end up buying more than they originally intended.

American consumers have a long history of expecting to find what they need when they need it. T.H Breen confirms this: “after the 1740s American shoppers came to expect a much larger selection, and merchants had to maintain ever larger inventories.”[1] In colonial America consumers sometimes needed to make the compromise of either getting what they wanted close to home but at an escalated price or traveling and getting a better price. Thompson and Arnold made it possible for the consumers in Providence to get both convenience and low prices.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

For my commentary on today’s advertisement, I must once again address the project’s methodology as well as my pedagogical goals. Once again one of the guest curators has selected an advertisement that should look very familiar to regular readers. At a glance, it appears that Lindsay has selected the same advertisement that guest curator Nicholas Commesso analyzed a few weeks ago. The same shopkeepers previously published the same list of goods with the same introductory remarks (the same copy from start to finish) and the same decorative border in the same publication. On closer inspection, I uncovered only one difference between the two advertisements: a colon substituted for a period at the end of the sentence immediately before the advertisement listed the goods available at Thompson and Arnold’s shop. (I have no ready explanation for why the printer would have made this change.) Technically, that single change qualifies this as a new advertisement.

That hardly seems like a satisfactory explanation or rationale for repeating an advertisement, deviating from the usual methodology and commitment to examining a new advertisement every day. Other factors played a more significant role in my decision. First of all, Thompson and Arnold published a very robust advertisement that made multiple implicit and explicit appeals to potential customers. Nick examined some of them when he selected this advertisement, but Lindsay picked up on others. Both students learned about aspects of colonial commerce and marketing; both contributed, in different ways, to the ongoing conversation at the Adverts 250 Project. One short entry about Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement was not sufficient to do it justice. In addition, featuring this advertisement a second time also underscores the frequency that some entrepreneurs resorted to advertising. Some shopkeepers ran an advertisement just once or for just a few weeks, but others, like Thompson and Arnold, ran their advertisements so many times that readers would have recognized them on sight. Repetition likely helped to cement Thompson and Arnold’s shop in the popular imagination around Providence.

The rhythm of newspaper publishing in colonial America also influenced my decision to allow Lindsay to feature this advertisement a second time. Nineteen newspapers (that have survived and have been digitized) were published during the week that Lindsay is serving as guest curator. Monday was the most popular day for publishing newspapers, with nine of the nineteen published on Monday. Saturday was one of the least popular days. The Providence Gazette was the only newspaper regularly published on Saturdays in 1766. That means that once a week the featured advertisement for the Adverts 250 Project should come from the Providence Gazette, the only newspaper published on that day 250 years ago. No newspapers were published on Sundays. The methodology for the project requires going back to the most recently published newspaper, which means that the featured advertisement should be drawn from the Providence Gazette twice a week. This places disproportionate emphasis on the Providence Gazette, a problem compounded by the fact that it included less advertising than some other newspapers (but more than others). Other newspapers, especially those printed in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston, could better bear that burden, but between the relative scarcity of advertisements and the tendency to run them for weeks or months, the Adverts 250 Project has pretty much exhausted the advertisements for consumer goods and services printed in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1766. I could have insisted that Lindsay go back one day earlier to select an advertisement from the New-London Gazette (which usually had even fewer advertisements), the New-Hampshire Gazette (which also had relatively few advertisements), or the Virginia Gazette (which typically ran many advertisements that have not yet been featured here). Future guest curators will have to do so, but I determined that even though today’s advertisement repeated an earlier one (except for that colon that replaced a period!) Thompson and Arnold still had something to tell us about colonial marketing and life in early America more generally.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1986): 489.

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