October 26

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

oct-26-10251766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (October 25, 1766).

“Choice French Indigo.”

This advertisement only contained three items: “Choice French Indigo, the best Florence Oil, and Fyal Wine.” All three have something in common: they were exported from foreign countries. The indigo was French, the oil was Italian, and the wine was Portuguese. These products represented international trade. However, international trade meant competing suppliers.

One product that fostered competition was indigo. An important commodity, it was in high demand because it produced a specific dye. According to Kenneth H. Beeson, Jr., “Indigo was the most important vat dye used by the British in the eighteenth century.”[1] South Carolina focused on the indigo trade. Colonists there invested a significant amount of land and energy into producing indigo. The effort resulted in American indigo becoming a serious threat to foreign suppliers. As R.C. Nash notes, “Carolina indigo … succeeded in displacing French and Spanish indigo in the British and in some continental markets.”[2] The colony’s economy relied upon the value of indigo. When the indigo trade did well, South Carolina prospered.

American indigo did not, however, completely push out all other suppliers. The fact that French indigo was being advertised in a colonial newspaper is a testament to the continuing competition between different indigo suppliers. Regardless of the success of the competition, the South Carolina economy depended heavily on indigo and it played an important part in early American economics.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recently several guest curators have commented on what eighteenth-century advertisements reveal about how colonists imagined urban spaces and navigated the cities where they resided or visited. In its starkness, today’s advertisement also demonstrates how much living, working, and shopping in cities has changed over the last three centuries.

This advertisement announced that readers of the Providence Gazette could purchase three popular commodities – indigo from France, olive oil from Italy, and wine from the Portuguese island of Faial in the Azores – “at the Sign of the Golden Eagle, in Providence.” Even by eighteenth-century standards this means of specifying the store’s location was quite sparse. The advertisement did not indicate the name of the seller who made these commodities available, nor did it list the street where customers could find “the Sign of the Golden Eagle.”

The advertiser apparently believed that “the Sign of the Golden Eagle” was such a well-known landmark that further directions were unnecessary. Presumably residents of Providence already knew where to find it, which suggests that the sign had been in place for quite some time. The proprietor may not have needed to include his (or possibly her) name in the advertisement because he (or she) was already so closely associated with the “Sign of the Golden Eagle” among the local populace.

In addition to giving the sign as the most significant landmark for locating the purveyor of indigo, “Florence Oil, and “Fyal Wine,” the advertisement included one piece of geographical information. The establishment could be found “in Providence.” Although neither the street nor the name of the proprietor was listed, it was necessary to specify the city or town since the Providence Gazette circulated throughout Rhode Island and beyond. Other businesses in other places had their own “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”

In modern advertisements entrepreneurs carefully specify where prospective customers can find their place of business. They list street addresses and significant landmarks. This advertiser may have been just as invested in readers knowing where to find the indigo, olive oil, and wine they needed or desired, but the nature of Providence as an urban space in 1766 required a different level of detail in providing directions for customers.

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[1] Kenneth H. Beeson, Jr., “Indigo Production in the Eighteenth Century,” Hispanic American Historical Review 44, no.. 2 (May 1964), 214.

[2] R.C. Nash, “South Carolina Indigo, European Textile, and the British Atlantic Economy in the Eighteenth Century,” Economic History Review 63, no. 2 (May 2010), 362.

 

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