February 21

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

feb-21-2211767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (Februar 21, 1767).

“English and West-India Goods.”

Nathan Angel sold “English and West-India Goods,” which is the part of this advertisement that stood out to me when I first read it since it reminded me of T.H. Breen’s article, “Baubles of Britain.” In it, Breen discusses the consumer revolution that took place during the eighteenth century, including the Anglicization of American colonists, their culture, and their economy that resulted from buying English goods. Anglicization, I learned, means to make or become English. Breen says there was “a pervasive Anglicization of the American market” during this period.[1] Breen also asserts that advertisements, such as this one, influenced the Anglicization of American consumers: “Advertisements, merchants’ displays, news of other people’s acquisitions stoked consumer desire and thereby accelerated the spread of Anglicization.”[2]

After reading Breen’s article, I had a better understanding of this advertisement. In it, Angel did not list specific goods to be sold.   He merely stated that he was selling “an assortment of English and West India goods.” However, in 1767 colonists would have known what Angel meant by “English” goods, such as cloth, pots and pans, and nails and other hardware.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Compared to many other merchants and shopkeepers who placed newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century, Nathan Angel was a man of few words. In contrast, Joseph and William Russell listed dozens of “English Goods” in their advertisement that appeared on the following page of the Providence Gazette. Despite the brevity of his notice about his “General Assortment of English and West-India Goods,” Angel managed to be repetitive, not because he was careless in choosing his words but more likely because he wanted prospective customers to notice two particular selling points.

In the space of just nine lines, Angel made and repeated two appeals concerning his merchandise, one concerning how recently he acquired his wares and the other concerning the prices customers could expect to pay.

Angel opened his advertisement by announcing, in capital letters, that he had “JUST RECEIVED” the goods he offered for sale. Midway through his advertisement he described his “General Assortment” of imported goods as “FRESH.” When it came to clothing and housewares, Angel knew that colonists worried about keeping up with current fashions in London. He countered that anxiety by implying that his inventory might be superior to what his competitors stocked solely because he had more recently acquired it. The Russells listed dozens of items, but they had been running the same advertisement since November. Were they trying to move undesirable goods that had been sitting in their shop for months? Readers did not need to worry about that if they bought Angel’s “FRESH” goods instead.

In the second line of his brief advertisement Angel promised prospective customers the “cheapest Rate” when they patronized his shop. To underscore that point, he concluded by stating that he was “determined to sell as Cheap as any Person in this or the neighbouring Colonies.” Throughout the past few months several shopkeepers in Providence had compared their prices to those of both local competitors and counterparts in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. In the advertisement printed immediately below Angel’s notice, Benjamin and Edward Thurber devoted a lengthy paragraph (longer than Angel’s entire advertisement) to explanations and assurances about their low prices. Angel, on the other hand, did not belabor the point.

Nathan Angel deployed some of the most common appeals in his advertisement, but he also devised a marketing strategy that deviated from what appeared in other notices. In the spirit of “less is more,” he quickly stated and then reiterated that he just acquired merchandise that he sold at low prices. Readers glancing through the Providence Gazette may have found his notice more memorable than the lengthy or dense advertisements that also appeared.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 79.

[2] Breen, “Baubles of Britain,” 85.

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