November 29

GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Sears

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

nov-29-11291766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (November 29, 1766).

“A large Assortment of English Goods and Braziery Ware.”

Joseph and William Russell sold a lot of items at their shop, which made it slightly difficult to digest this advertisement when I first looked at it. They listed many different types of products, ranging from clothing to cooking supplies to other household items. What I found interesting about this advertisement was how it reflected the consumer revolution in colonial America.

According to Colonial Williamsburg’s description of the consumer revolution, colonists wanted to show their “rising standard of living and their style and worth” through their purchases. In addition, “[a]s society became more mobile, houses, land, and livestock alone no longer communicated social rank. By the end of the seventeenth century, ordinary men and women began to demand consumer goods that indicated their status.” For example, in this advertisement the Russells sold things like “superfine green, blue, and crimson velvets” as well as “Dutch quills and sealing wax,” “Watch strings,” “Table and tea-spoons,” and even “Ivory handle forks and knives.”

Many people in the colonies wanted to live more refined lives. They bought imported fabrics to make fashionable clothes. They also bought chairs and other furniture, silverware and other housewares, latches and other hardware, and other imported goods in stores like the one from this advertisement. The consumer revolution made life easier for colonists who bought more items since they had more disposable income.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Today’s advertisement may look familiar to readers who visit the Adverts 250 Project regularly. It was the second printing of the first full-page advertisement for consumer goods in an American newspaper, which was the subject of a special feature last week. While the project’s methodology usually forbids repeating an advertisement, I do make exceptions for good cause. In this case, today’s advertisement helps to demonstrate one of the limitations of working with digitized sources: portions of a source can be separated from the remainder of the source in ways not possible when working with an original document. This alters the way scholars then interpret those truncated sources.

Near the beginning of the semester each guest curator submitted the seven advertisements that he or she wished to study in greater detail. They were not required to submit the entire issues of the newspapers that contained their advertisements, just the advertisements themselves. As a result, I sorted through a pile of advertisements printed one per page, completely disembodied from the context of their original sources. I approved each advertisement based on whether it marketed consumer goods and services and whether it had been featured previously.

When Nicholas submitted this advertisement I noticed that its format deviated from that of standard eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, but it did so in the same ways as earlier advertisements by Thompson and Arnold and other shopkeepers who experimented with decorative borders around oversized advertisements that spanned multiple columns. At a glance, I assumed that Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement was yet another example of a trade card transformed into a newspaper advertisement in the pages of the Providence Gazette. I approved this advertisement for inclusion in the project, figuring that I would note that it provided further evidence that advertisers paid attention to their competitors’ marketing and adapted new and innovative methods when they saw them.

Before I write my commentary on any of the advertisements selected by the guest curators, I always look through the entire issue in order to gain a greater appreciation for the context in which they appeared. That was how I first discovered that the Russells’ advertisement did not merely replicate a new mode recently adopted by other shopkeepers. Their full-page advertisement in the November 22, 1776, issue of the Providence Gazette was different, a further evolution of innovations involving the size of newspaper advertisements.

I made this discovery about the original November 22 publication of the Russells’ advertisement only after I had approved Nick’s submission of the November 29 iteration and dispatched him to do his research. I did not want to be a week late drawing attention to the importance of this advertisement in my additional commentary section attached to his analysis, so I went ahead and wrote a special feature on November 22. In his use of this advertisement to provide an overview of the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, Nick demonstrates how much more there was to say about this advertisement (and how much remains to be said given the extensive list of merchandise). In that regard, it hardly matters that Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement has been featured twice on the Adverts 250 Project.

Still, my appreciation for the significance of this advertisement occurred belatedly because the processes of digitization and reproduction altered its size and separated it from the rest of the issue. As a result, I did not understand the nature of the advertisement when I first viewed it. In contrast, had I been working with an original copy of the Providence Gazette the materiality of the text would have made this advertisement’s significance apparent at a glance.

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