November 4

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

nov-4-1141766-south-carolina-gazette-and-country-journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 4, 1766).

“Irish and Drogheda linen.”

In this advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Thomas Dennison sold various items, such as “Fine white salt, coals, cheese, potatoes, [and] crates of yellow ware.” Nonetheless one item specifically drew my eye: “Irish and Drogheda linen.” I had never before heard of Drogheda and Iam also Irish so I was immediately drawn to it.  I learned that Drogheda is one of Ireland’s oldest towns.

The commercial relationship between Ireland and colonial America was beneficial and profitable. Thomas M. Truxes notes that it was expensive to produce linen in the colonies while in Ireland it was far cheaper. This made Irish linen that much more desirable because it was “attractively priced” and “became progressively less expensive.”[1] This was also ideal for England who wanted to discourage “industrial development in the colonies.” Plus the English merchants earned money when they were the middlemen who imported Irish linens into the colonies, but “Irish merchants and factors played key roles in the distribution system” too.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Price, Hest, and Head listed a variety of goods in their advertisement. From among them, Ceara chose to investigate a commodity that appeared repeatedly in eighteenth-century advertisements: Irish linens. Ceara consulted Thomas M. Truxes’s Irish-American Trade, 1660-1783 to identify some of the reasons why Irish linen was transported to the colonies. As Ceara and I worked together on researching and revising her analysis of this advertisement, I was struck by the data Truxes provided to demonstrate the magnitude of the Irish linen trade.

Truxes devotes an entire chapter to Irish linen, which he begins by stating that “British America was Ireland’s second largest market for linen and its most important vent for coarse, low-priced cloths.”[2] For the purposes of placing today’s advertisement in context, let’s have a look at some of the numbers for the middle of the eighteenth century. “With the English bounty of 1743,” Truxes explains, the linen export to America experienced a surge in growth of unprecedented proportions, reaching a level of 4.4 million yards per annum by the early 1770s.” Furthermore, between 1750 and 1770, the quantity of Irish linen exports to the American colonies quadrupled. During the same period, the colonies became an increasingly important market for Irish linens: the share of Ireland’s total linen export that went to British America doubled.

Advertisements for textiles were incredibly common in eighteenth-century newspapers. Many of those advertisements relied on lengthy lists of fabrics of varying qualities, colors, and patterns. Amid that diversity, any list of imported textiles almost invariably included Irish linens. Those advertisements offer impressionistic evidence that Irish linens were ubiquitous in the colonial American marketplace, though they rarely specified how many yards of Irish linen merchants imported or shopkeepers stocked. Truxes clarifies the volume of Irish linens that flowed to America in the decades before the Revolution, confirming the significance of this commodity.

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[1] All quotations in this entry: Thomas M. Truxes, Irish-American Trade, 1660-1784 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 170.

[2] As above, all quotations and statistics in this entry: Thomas M. Truxes, Irish-American Trade, 1660-1784 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 170.

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