November 23

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

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

nov-23-11221766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766).

“A fresh Assortment of European GOODS, (of the last Importation).”

I chose this advertisement because Benoni Pearce talked about having just received imported goods from Europe that he was ready to sell in the shop he “just opened.” All sorts of “European GOODS” were very popular and valuable among the colonists. Pearce understood that the colonists loved European goods and that they bought them because they wanted to copy the styles popular in London and other parts of England. As David Jaffee explains, “These goods –textiles, furniture, and even table forks – made possible the pursuit of an ideal of refinement.” This was a way for colonists to expand their own culture and share a common consumer identity with people back in England. Pearce did not really list what he was selling; he just said “European GOODS,” expecting he would be able to sell them. He also promised that customers would not be disappointed.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Patrick raises an interesting point about some of the assumptions made by eighteenth-century advertisers. Benoni Pearce did not list any specific merchandise that he stocked. Instead, he offered a general description – “a fresh Assortment of European GOODS, (of the last Importation)” – and trusted that this would entice potential customers.

That’s not to say that this advertisement amounted to nothing more than a mere announcement. Pearce did fold several marketing appeals into his brief commercial notice. He sold his wares “on as reasonable Terms as his Neighbours” to customers who wished to “lay out their Money to the best Advantage.” By noting that his goods were “of the last Importation” he assured potential customers that he was not peddling outdated merchandise that had been pawned off on him by English merchants seeking to clear their warehouses of undesirable goods. Instead, he stock consisted of the latest fashions popular in England and elsewhere in Europe.

Pearce’s advertisement appeared in the same column as the one place by Gideon Young that Patrick examined yesterday. Each was the standard “square” common in many eighteenth-century newspapers, but Young made slightly different decisions about how to fill the space he purchased. He included a short list that named some of his wares before indicated that they were part of a “general assortment of GOODS needless to mention.” Here, again, an advertiser trusted that an appeal to choice and variety, rather than an extensive list of merchandise, was sufficient to attract customers.

This strategy – no list or a short list contained in a standard advertising square – differed significantly from another advertisement that appeared in the same issue of the Providence Gazette, the first full-page advertisement printed in an American newspaper. Resorting to three columns, Joseph and William Russell listed hundreds of items that comprised their “large Assortment of English Goods and Braziery Ware.”

Benoni Pearce, Gideon Young, and Joseph and William Russell all sought to harness the power of advertising to encourage consumer demand and direct potential customers to their respective shops. In the process, however, they adopted different strategies in writing copy and making graphic design decisions. At a glance, many advertisements from the late colonial era look standard and interchangeable, but even the squares published by Pearce and Young contained noticeable differences when consumers consulted them carefully.

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