October 30

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

oct-30-10301766-massachusetts-gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (October 30, 1766).

“Madeira Fish.”

In this advertisement certain types of fish were being sold: “Madeira Fish” and “Jamaica Fish.”

What drove me to pick this advertisement? I was interested in where these fish came from and how they show the vast networks of trade the colonies are involved in. At the time Jamaica was under British rule; however, Madeira was (and continues to be) an archipelago in the eastern Atlantic that belongs to Portugal. I found this quite interesting since before this I had never heard of Madeira and found it intriguing that the island traded with the New England colonies.

T.H. Breen notes that economic growth of colonial America was not just due to the exporting of goods from the colonies but also consumption thanks to the importation of new goods.[1] These fish are prime examples of this. Breen argued that colonists were not as self-sufficient as later historians claimed. They imported food, like “Madeira Fish” and “Jamaica Fish,” to supplement what they produced themselves. This also showed a taste or craving for goods rather than the common fish from the area.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Ceara rightly notes that this relatively plain advertisement reveals transatlantic networks of commerce. Despite the rich fishing grounds of the North Atlantic, colonists imported and consumed fish from Madeira and the Caribbean, diversifying their diets.

Even as this advertisement conjured an imaginative map of trade throughout the Atlantic, it also oriented colonists toward London, the center of the British Empire. The anonymous purveyor of “Madeira Fish” and “Jamaica Fish” gave few directions to the shop where customers could acquire these fish: “Enquire at the Crown and Sceptre in Back street.” This shop sign invoked two symbols of royal authority. The proprietor could have selected from among countless other devices to mark the location of this shop but chose a sign that asserted allegiance to the king and the British nation. Furthermore, the proprietor continued to display this particular shop sign even after the Stamp Act controversy and the Declaratory Act. Three days earlier, William Murray published an advertisement in the supplement to the Boston Evening-Post, an advertisement that listed his location as “at the Sign of General Wolfe.” Murray associated his shop with the English hero killed at the Battle of Quebec during the Seven Years War. Both Murray and the anonymous proprietor at the “Crown and Sceptre” promoted British identity as integral to their own commercial identities. They also expected this would resonate with potential customers. Elsewhere in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette, however, John Gore, Jr., stated that he sold goods imported from London “Opposite LIBERTY-TREE, BOSTON.”

These advertisements reveal a tension that began to emerge in advertisements and elsewhere during the 1760s as colonists contemplated how to organize the spatial geography of urban ports in light of their evolving relationship with Britain. Many continued to put great stock in their British identity and membership in the empire, despite new regulations passed by Parliament, but others used new symbols to define their businesses and their relationship to England.

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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): 478-485.

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