January 26

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

Boston-Gazette (January 26, 1767).

“My Good Customers and others will excuse my not promising to sell CHEAPER than can be bought elsewhere.”

William Palfrey frequently advertised in the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers printed in the city. His placed notices of various lengths, such as this list advertisement that extended for an entire column. As a preamble to this extensive account of his merchandise, Palfrey inserted much of the standard language and made several of the most common appeals. His method of advertising looked familiar to potential customers because Palfrey understood all the conventions of newspaper advertising in eighteenth-century America. Among those conventions, he made an appeal to price, promising that “he will sell at the very lowest Rates by Wholesale or Retail.”

That was not Palfrey’s last word, however, when it came to the price of his goods. He concluded his advertisement with a short paragraph that advised readers that “The above Goods will be sold as CHEAP as any of the same Quality in Town. My Good Customers and others will excuse my not promising to sell CHEAPER than can be bought of elsewhere; as such promises, though frequently made, are seldom comply’d with, and are only calculated to impose on Persons who are not well acquainted with the Quality of Goods.” In so doing, Palfrey echoed a sentiment that Gilbert Deblois had recently expressed in his advertisements. That other shopkeeper explained that he did not indicate prices of specific items in his advertisements because everyone knew that goods “differ so much in Quality.”

In making these observations, Palfrey and Deblois indicated that they were aware that potential customers, at least savvy ones, did not take all of the claims made in advertisements at face value. While recognizing that readers would naturally be suspicious of the appeals advanced in their own advertisements, both shopkeepers sought to turn such skepticism to their advantage. By acknowledging that there was room for subterfuge in advertising, especially that deception might be practiced by others, they encouraged readers to have greater trust in them to deal fairly. After all, when they admitted that they could not get away with pulling the wool over customers’ eyes that put the shopkeepers in the position of only being able to transact business as honest brokers.

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