What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“READY MONEY given for Linen Rags.”
Sarah Goddard and Company inserted a letter “To the PRINTERS” by the pseudonymous Anthony Afterwrit in the February 14, 1767, issue of the Providence Gazette, along with a preface that stated, “There being at this Time a great Dearth of News among us, and as there appears to be some Oeconomy in the following Letter, we hope our giving it a Place in this Paper will Prove agreeable to our Readers.” Based on the number of paid notices published in the same issue, it appears that Goddard and Company also experienced a dearth of advertising submitted by local merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans. They once again ran multiple advertisements for their own printing and bookselling enterprises, including a call for linen rags that had first been inserted at least six months earlier.
The colophon on the final page continued to announce that the printing office accepted advertisements for the newspaper, but the editorial decisions made by Goddard and Company may have worked at cross purposes when it came to attracting advertisers. The entertaining letter from Anthony Afterwrit, its inclusion occasioned by the “great Dearth of News among us,” told the story of a wife with “a strong inclination to be a gentlewomen” who found expression for this desire through purchasing a new looking glass after her husband’s “old fashioned looking-glass” broke under suspicious circumstances. In turn, the wife purchased “a more proper table” and “handsome chairs” to complement the new looking glass. Next, she acquired “a tea-table with its appurtenances of china and silver” and hired a maid. Not yet content, she convinced her husband that “it was absolutely necessary to buy a clock,” which became “a great ornament” in the household. Finally, this wife with aspirations decided that she needed “a very fine pacing mare” rather than the “wretched ugly” horses the family already possessed.
After telling this story, Afterwrit concluded by revealing that his wife was away on a trip to visit a relative in the countryside. In her absence, he sold off all the new, expensive, and unnecessarily luxurious commodities recently acquired. Knowing that his wife’s relation subscribed to the Providence Gazette and that his spouse would read it before returning home, he offered the letter as a warning for what she could expect. He also reported that he had used some of the money he recovered from selling the new furniture to purchase “a sett of knitting needles” because he began to “want stockings.” Preoccupied with conspicuous consumption, his wife had presumably neglected her duties, but she should expect to take up those needles to produce, rather than purchase, clothing once she returned.
This letter from Anthony Afterwrit began on the first page and filled half of the second. Advertisements from Joseph and William Russell and Benjamin and Edward Thurber, all regular advertisers in the Providence Gazette, appeared on the third page, facing the letter. Those retailers may not have much appreciated the critique of consumer culture that preceded their advertisements. Prospective advertisers may have thought twice about purchasing space of their own in Goddard and Company’s newspaper.