January 17

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

Providence Gazette (January 17, 1767).

“A Very large and new Assortment consisting of almost every Kind suitable for Town and Country.”

Regular readers of the Providence Gazette may have raised their eyebrows when they encountered Joseph and William Russell’s claim that “Their Assortment [of consumer goods] is too large for an Advertisement of Particulars in this Paper.” Such an assertion belied the numerous lengthy list advertisements that appeared in American newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. More significantly, it contradicted the Russells’ recent marketing strategies in the Providence Gazette itself. Less than two months earlier, the Russells had inaugurated the first full-page advertisement in that publication, a commercial notice divided into three columns that listed hundreds of items from their “large Assortment of English Goods and Braziery Ware.” The Russells placed that advertisement multiple times over the next several weeks before yielding the space to other advertisers, shopkeepers who also experimented with full-page advertising once they observed competitors initiate the practice. Almost every issue of the Providence Gazette published since late November included a full-page advertisement on the final page.

That may explain the remarkable statement that “an Advertisement of Particulars” from among the Russells’ “Very large and new Assortment” of goods was “too large” to be included “in this Paper.” That portion of the advertisement may not have been written by either of the Russells but may have instead been an editorial comment inserted by the printers. Perhaps “this Paper” referred specifically to that particular issue, already filled with other content, including a full-page list advertisement for Thompson and Arnold’s “Shop near the Great Bridge.” If the suspect claim was indeed an editorial explanation, it might also have been a promise that a more complete accounting of the Russells’ “Fresh GOODS, JUST IMPORTED FROM LONDON” would appear in a subsequent issue.

At any rate, the comment rang particularly false because the Russells’ advertisement appeared in the first column on the first page of that issue (perhaps given such a prominent place – the only advertisement that appeared on the front page of a newspaper that usually reserved paid notices for the final two pages – as a consolation for the printer not being able to accommodate a larger or lengthier advertisement). As a result, the Russells’ advertisement was printed directly to the right of Thompson and Arnold’s full-page advertisement before the broadsheet was folded in half to create a four-page issue. Although separated as the first and last pages most of the time, those two advertisements appeared next to each other any time a reader opened the newspaper. In the absence of listing their merchandise, the Russells resorted to promising that “Customers may have a fine Choice,” enough variety to compete with the hundreds of items Thompson and Arnold listed in their advertisement elsewhere in the same issue.

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