November 20

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

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

Massachusetts Gazette (November 20, 1766).

“A general Assortment of Goods.”

I chose this advertisement because Bartholomew Kneeland ran a store that sold a wide variety of products that almost everyone during colonial times used. These products were “imported from London” to be sold at his store in Boston. Kneeland did not sell just one category of products; he sold items such as fabrics to make clothing, tea and spices, “Writing Paper,” “English and Poland Starch,” and “many other articles not mentioned.”

Many of these are everyday products were very much needed in colonial America; many continue to be important even today. I noticed a lot of materials that colonists used to make their own clothing and other necessities. According to Virginia Johnson, “Every colonial family except for the very rich had to be able to make their own soap, candles, furniture, cloth, baskets, toys, and musical instrument.” Families in colonial Boston needed the products Kneeland sold. This made me think of today and how most people do not need to make their own clothing and other household items.



When Patrick and I met to review his advertisements together, I asked him to explain why he selected this particular advertisement for his first day as guest curator of the Adverts 250 Project. Of all the possible advertisements he could have chosen, what was it about this advertisement that attracted his attention. Patrick indicated that he noticed this advertisement because of its length and the number of consumer goods listed separately in its two columns. We then had a discussion in which we compared Bartholomew Kneeland’s advertisement to others that appeared in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette.

Kneeland’s advertisement appeared at the top of the first column on the second page of that issue. It extended approximately three-quarters of the way down the column. Readers would have noticed it not only because it was the first advertisement in that issue but also because it occupied so much space on the page. Immediately below it, another advertisement announced “West-India Goods” for sale but did not list any specific items. To the right, similar list-style advertisements by Thomas Hickling and Samuel Eliot extended the entire second and third columns, respectively. Other lengthy list-style advertisements appeared on the third and fourth pages of the issue.

Many other advertisements, however, were markedly shorter. Richard Salter and Joshua Blanchard, for instance, each inserted short advertisements that announced goods imported for London available at low prices, but they did not deploy a list of merchandise as an appeal to attract customers to their shop. One advertisement briefly stated, “Nathaniel Appleton, At his Shop in CORNHILL, has just opened: A General Assortment of English and India Goods, which he will sell cheaper than ever for Cash only.”

Massachusetts Gazette (November 20, 1766).

Each advertiser attempted to incite demand and encourage potential customers to visit their shops, but they used different strategies. Bartholomew Kneeland and some of his competitors invested in lengthy list-style advertisements to demonstrate the variety of their merchandise and to make it more likely that readers noticed their advertisements. A quarter of a millennium later this method continued to succeed: Kneeland’s advertisement caught Patrick’s attention and prompted him to read through it to see what the shopkeeper offered for sale.

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