GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Sears
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
This advertisement showcased a public vendue held at an “Auction-Room in Queen Street” in Boston. J. Russell, the auctioneer, sold mainly clothing and household items, but what I found interesting was the “Scotch Snuff.” I know that tobacco was a major cash crop in the colonies, along with sugar, rice, and indigo, but I figured that tobacco was only smoked during this time.
As I researched this product I realized that there was an interesting history behind it. With the amount of trade that was flowing throughout the Atlantic, snuff thrived in the colonies and Europe. According to an exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American history, the labels on snuff packages even “reflected the trade links between Virginia and England.” Plantation owners who sold tobacco to be made into snuff prospered from this product. Since it became so popular in the colonies, by 1750 tobacconists changed the way it was produced. According to Edwin Tunis, author of Colonial Craftsmen: And the Beginnings of American Industry, initially tobacco was grounded into snuff by using had mortars by hand and was produced it small quantities. Later, tobacconists began “grinding it with water power, either between ordinary milestones, like flour, or in large mortars.” Tobacco was a commodity that was high in demand in the colonies so it is no surprise that snuff also became popular.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Most advertisers of consumer goods and services extended open invitations for potential customers to visit their shops, examine their merchandise, and make purchases whenever they wished. Public vendues (or auctions) operated differently. In her recent work on auctions in early America, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor underscores the importance of setting a specific time for public vendues and, as a result, gathering colonists together to socialize and be entertained during the sale. Purchasing consumer goods, Hartigan-O’Connor argues, did not occur solely in transactions between shopkeeper and customer. Instead, some purchases were on display as part of larger events.
By necessity, advertisements for auctions specified a time that the sale would be held. Such information was as critical as the location or the list of goods up for bid. When they advertised in newspapers, most colonists selling goods at auction ran their advertisements at least a week in advance and often much earlier. A successful sale depended on attracting as many potential customers as possible. Letting others know when an auction would occur was especially critical if it was a one-time-only or irregularly scheduled event.
Russell, however, regularly held public vendues in his “Auction-Room in Queen Street” in Boston. His frequent advertisements alerted readers to at least one auction a week. In the advertisement that Nicholas selected for today, the time of the auction received first billing. “THIS DAY” appeared in a larger font than anything else in the advertisement, signaling that the rest of the content merited attention immediately because it was so time-sensitive. The notice continued by specifying that the auction would take place “At ELEVEN o’Clock in the Morning, AND At THREE o’Clock Afternoon.” In addition to placing this advertisement, Russell may have displayed a red flag outside his “Auction-Room,” another method of announcing a sale would take place that day (but one that did not rely on print or the distribution of newspapers or other advertising media).
That Russell scheduled his auction for “THIS DAY” caught my attention because R. & S. Draper usually published the Massachusetts Gazette on Thursdays in 1766, but for some reason this issue was delayed and appeared on Friday, November 28, 1766, rather than Thursday, November 27. Considering the news items and dozens of advertisements, had the Drapers remembered to adjust the date accordingly from “TOMORROW” (what should have appeared if the newspaper had been published on the 27th, just as it appeared in Russell’s advertisement printed in the issue from the 20th) to “THIS DAY” instead? Did this advertisement actually appear the day after the announced sale took place?
Given how often Russell advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette, constantly updating his copy to reflect auction dates and times as well as merchandise, it seems likely that the Drapers would have given special attention to his advertisement for that week, realizing that it needed to be revised accordingly to fit the schedule of their newspaper’s delayed publication. Not inconsequentially, Russell’s advertisement appeared immediately below a notice that read, in its entirety, “New Advertisements. THE Committee of the House of Representatives, to consider the Difficulties of the Trade of the Province, will meet again this Afternoon at 3 o’Clock, at the Representatives Room.” Russell had some competition for his auction “At THREE o”Clock Afternoon” that day, but the proximity of the two advertisements suggests that the Drapers made any necessary adjustments to the copy when they decided to distribute the issue a day later than usual.
That Russell’s advertisement announced a sale to be held “At ELEVEN o’CLOCK in the Morning” on “THIS DAY” brings up an issue for consideration another time. How early in the day did the Massachusetts Gazette need to be distributed in order for this to be an effective advertisement? Even with delayed publication, it was not the first time that Russell placed a “THIS DAY” advertisement. He apparently believed the newspaper circulated with sufficient time for potential customers to read it or else he would not have invested in the advertisement.
 Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsman: And the Beginnings of American Industry (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1957), 52.