What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“He intends to sell on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town.”
Eighteenth-century shopkeepers and artisans frequently made appeals to price in their advertisements, but they usually did not elaborate much beyond a few words or phrases assuring prospective customers that they charged “low rates” for their merchandise. On occasion, some advertisers, like Jabez Peirce, elaborated on this theme. He confidently proclaimed that he sold his “fresh assortment of European goods … on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” While he did not explicitly state that he offered low prices, he informed potential customers that they would not find better deals anywhere else around town.
In this regard, he adopted language similar to what appeared in other advertisements published in the Providence Gazette in recent weeks. In the previous issue, Elihu Robinson, a hatter, announced that he sold his wares “as Cheap for Cash, as … any Person in this Town.” Similarly, James Green pledged that he priced his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town.” Both Robinson and Green also favorably compared their prices to those in other places (indicating that consumers might travel to do some of their shopping or order goods from shopkeepers via the post, a service mentioned fairly regularly in advertisements). Robinson mentioned Boston and New York by name, but Green used the same phrase as Peirce: “neighbouring governments.”
Many advertisers used formulaic language in their commercial notices in the eighteenth century, which caused many advertisements to take on a standardized appearance (at least at first glance; close and careful reading yields variations, innovations, and attempts to distinguish some advertisements from the bulk of others that appeared on the page). That many printers preferred specific formats for fonts, sizes, and spacing when laying out advertisements for their own publications further contributed to creating a static visual culture of advertising within the pages of many newspapers. At a glance, graphic design and formulaic language made many advertisements appear indistinguishable.
Peirce’s advertisement is interesting and significant because it demonstrates how advertisers made the same appeals as their competitors, often even resorting to the same language, while simultaneously illustrating that unique appeals sometimes emerged in specific places and were quickly adopted by multiple advertisers. Although several advertisements in the Providence Gazette in early 1767 stressed the lowest prices in town, advertisers in other cities throughout the colonies universally relied on more general assertions about low prices, if they made appeals to price at all. Similarly, only advertisers in Providence showed any concern about local residents obtaining goods from competitors in “neighbouring governments.”
How long did that trend last? Did it eventually appear in advertisements published in other cities? Jabez Peirce’s advertisement raises interesting questions even as it further establishes a pattern in the Providence Gazette.