November 15

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams

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

Providence Gazette (November 15, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD, FOR CASH, BY Samuel Nightingale … Sealing wax and wafers.”

In this advertisement published in the Providence Gazette, Samuel Nightingale offered a wide assortment of goods in his “new shop.” Out of the many goods to choose to research, I decided to take a look at sealing wax and wafers.

Letters in colonial America were not placed into separate envelopes before being sent. Instead, the letters themselves were folded into hand-made envelopes and sealed closed with either sealing wax or wafers.[1] Using sealing wax involved melting a stick of wax over the folded letter with a candle. Before the wax dried, the writer pressed a stamp into the wax to form a seal. The process was messy and time consuming compared to the alternative method to seal letters: wafers. Wafers were pre-made seals that would stick to paper when they were wet.

Reading about the ways letters were sealed reveals a few issues of security and privacy involving mail in the colonies. In “The Meaning and Value of Privacy,” Daniel J. Solove writes, “In colonial America, mail was often insecure. Letters sealed only with wax, left many people concerned that they were far from secure.”[2] Solove goes on to say that Benjamin Franklin, who was a colonial postmaster general, required his post workers to take an oath that they would not open up other people’s mail. [3] We can infer from sealing wax and wafers that there was a certain lack of privacy that existed in the postal system in colonial America.



More than any other newspaper printers in the 1760s, Sarah Goddard and Company, the printers of the Providence Gazette, seem to have allowed advertisers to experiment with innovative graphic design. Goddard may have even suggested and encouraged innovative approaches to layout that distinguished individual advertisements from each other and her newspaper from others circulating in New England and beyond.

The Providence Gazette, established by William Goddard in 1762, ceased publication in May 1765. When it was resurrected by his mother in August 1766, issues almost immediately included oversized advertisements that spanned two columns and featured decorative borders. The Adverts 250 Project has already examined several of those advertisements, including notices by Thompson and Arnold and Benjamin and Edward Thurber and Samuel Nightingale, Jr. Although copies of Goddard’s Providence Gazette most certainly made their way to Boston and New York and beyond, neither advertisers nor printers in other cities were quick to adopt the unique layout that resembled a trade card superimposed on a page of the newspaper. Given that printers ultimately controlled the content and layout of their newspapers, it is possible that shopkeepers requested similar treatment for their advertisements only to meet resistance from printers who did not wish to disrupt the format of their publications.

Considering that the Providence Gazette was only recently revived and may not yet have had an extensive cohort of advertisers providing financial support for the endeavor, Goddard may have been more eager and willing to experiment with the graphic design elements of advertising as a means of filling space and possibly raising more interest among potential new advertisers. Whatever the reasons, advertisements of the type that Mary has selected for today appeared exclusively in the Providence Gazette during the summer and fall of 1766. Keep an eye open for next week’s entry featuring an advertisement from the Providence Gazette to see how Mary Goddard and Company and their advertisers continued to create attention-grabbing advertisements using innovative graphic design.


[1] E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 284.

[2] Daniel H. Solove, “The Meaning and Value of Privacy,” in Social Dimensions of Privacy: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Beate Roessler and Dorota Mokrosinka (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 75.

[3] Solove, “Meaning and Value of Privacy,” 76.

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