February 7

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

Providence Gazette (February 7, 1767).

“A Few Firkins of good Butter.”

Black and Smith placed this advertisement in order to obtain consumer goods rather than to market their own wares to potential customers. They did not specify what they intended to do with “A Few Firkins of good Butter” and “a small Quantity of Lump” butter. Instead they invited anyone who could supply these commodities to “enquire … at their Shop.” Black and Smith did not seek to entice potential customers to visit their shop by listing the variety of goods they stocked or guaranteeing low prices or making appeals concerning quality or fashion. Perhaps they felt that they already did brisk business and did not need to invest in marketing.

In their call for “good Butter,” the partners used a unit of measurement largely unfamiliar to modern Americans, though craft beer enthusiasts may recognize the firkin as a cask that contains one quarter of a barrel. In the colonial era, however, a firkin might be used to measure beer by volume or it might be used to measure butter and cheese by weight. For the latter, a firkin was equivalent to fifty-six pounds.

The term firkin testifies to the networks of trade that linked European nation-states to each other as well as locations throughout the Atlantic world. According to Russ Rowlett, “The unit is of Dutch origin, and its name is based on the Dutch word vier for four.” That makes sense and seems quite appropriate considering that a firkin was equivalent to four stone when measuring butter or cheese by weight or one quarter of a barrel when measuring beer and other liquids by volume.

Units of measurement used in colonial America may seem quaint and confusing when encountered by modern readers, but colonists recognized them just as easily as (and, in some cases, more easily than) modern consumers distinguish among short, tall, grande, and venti beverages at a popular coffee retailer.

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