December 22

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

Boston Post-Boy (December 22, 1766).

“A General Assortment of English Goods.”

Elizabeth Williams operated a shop out of her “House in Beer Lane, near the Rev. Mr. Pemberton’s Meeting-House” in Boston. She imported “a general Assortment of English Goods” from London, including “Cotton Velvets,” Mens mill’d Hose, Gloves and Caps,” and “Stationary & hard Ware.” Although she listed approximately two dozen types of merchandise, she also carried “a variety of other Articles, to many to be here inserted.”

In promoting a variety of consumer goods recently imported from English ports, Williams advanced one of the most common marketing appeals of the eighteenth century. She offered choices to potential customers, drawing them in by naming popular items and by promising even more for shoppers to discover and examine once they were in her shop. Indeed, “variety” was important in Williams’ marketing efforts. In addition to general descriptions of her merchandise, she inserted the word into her list twice: “A variety of Broad Cloths” and “A great Variety of Coat and Breast Buttons.” Her customers would not be stuck with whatever she happened to have on hand; instead, they could choose according to their own tastes.

Williams also made appeals to price, noting that she sold her English goods “at the lowest Advance.” For one product, “yard-wide Irish Linnens,” she had several different sorts “of all Prices,” again offering choices to her potential customers. In addition, she made implicit appeals to fashion when she listed several textiles, as well as an explicit appeal when she described her candlesticks as “New-fashion.”

In making appeals to choice, price, and fashion, Williams adopted several of the most popular marketing strategies deployed by her male competitors. In that regard, little distinguished her advertisement from others except that a woman’s name appeared at the beginning. Other historians have demonstrated that in the busiest urban ports, like Boston, as many as one-third of shopkeepers were women by the middle of the eighteenth century, although they do not comprise such a high proportion of advertising for consumer goods and services. Women faced challenges when they operated retail establishments, but they were not excluded from participating on the supply – rather than the consumption – side of the marketplace. Elizabeth Williams’ advertisement demonstrates one method used by some female shopkeepers to integrate into a male-dominated occupation.

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