February 23

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

feb-23-2231767-newport-mercury
Newport Gazette (February 23, 1767).

“Nutmegs, Copperass, Allum, Pepper, Tea.”

This advertisement interested me because of its length. As T. H. Breen notes in “Baubles of Britain,” with the increase in imported goods colonists had countless options, exemplified by this advertisement.[1] Another thing that intrigued me about this advertisement was that nutmeg was being sold in the 1760s. Nutmeg is a spice that is commonly used today, however, I was surprised to see it mentioned in an eighteenth-century advertisement. I discovered that nutmeg was used as a spice then, just like it is today. In Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra L. Oliver states, “The nutmeg husk is cracked, and the nut within is used for spice, usually grated on a grater specifically for nutmegs.”[2]

 

feb-23-nutmeg
Nutmeg grater crafted by Joseph Kneeland (ca. 1720-1740). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visit the museum’s online record to see additional photos.

The importation and sale of nutmeg in the colonies reveals that the colonists and the mother country took part in trade that expanded beyond than the Atlantic Ocean. After further research, I discovered that nutmeg was grown in the Banda Islands, also known as the Spice Islands (in modern Indonesia).

After the American Revolution, the new United States became more involved in the global spice trade by trading directly with Asian growers, instead of going through Great Britain. Some American businessmen embarked on long voyages to obtain spices. American entrepreneurs formed new businesses in search of profits to be made once they were free of the restrictions of the British imperial system.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Shannon indicates, Christopher Champlin’s advertisement provides evidence of an expansive and expanding consumer culture in the decade before the American Revolution. In many instances, purchasing one product made it necessary to obtain other goods as well. Such was the case with nutmeg. The buyer also needed a nutmeg grater, though it did not have to be as ornate as the one currently in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum. As Oliver notes, “Spices were usually imported whole, and it was the cook’s job to pound and sift them for use in cookery.”[3] Note that Champlin’s advertisement lists “Nutmegs” rather than “Nutmeg,” an indication that they were indeed whole and needed to be grated by the customer. A consumer only needed to purchase a nutmeg grater once, but that was still an acquisition that contributed to colonial households being filled with an increasing number of possessions.

While a nutmeg grater could be a relatively minor purchase (even though it appears that “RW” opted for one inspired by fashion as much as practical use), consuming other imported grocery items required equipment that could become quite expensive, depending on the tastes and desires of the consumer. For instance, Champlin sold both tea and chocolate. To enjoy either of these beverages, his customers also needed to possess various sorts of housewares, including cups and either a teapot or a chocolate pot. In addition, tea drinkers also obtained strainers, waste bowls, sugar tongs, ewers for cream or milk, tea canisters, sugar bowls, saucers, and stands for the pot and sometimes even the bowls. Decorative tea sets could be made of ceramic, Chinese export porcelain, or silver. Champlin also sold “hard metal Tea Pots and Spoons.” Fashions evolved for housewares just as they did for clothing, prompting consumers to make additional purchases.

It comes as no surprise that colonists needed various sorts of kitchen equipment in order to prepare food. That being said, eighteenth-century advertisements that list assorted grocery items sometimes obscure the specialized items that colonists also needed (or wanted). As Shannon notes, the length of this advertisement testifies to the growth of consumer culture in eighteenth-century America. On closer examination of individual items, however, we discover that the cascade of selling and acquiring was even more significant than the length of the advertisement alone suggests.

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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): 73-104.

[2] Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 74.

[3] Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America, 74.

One thought on “February 23

  1. Enjoyed reading this… my life has been dedicated to the study and use of nutmeg and nutmeg graters. I am aware of an identical silver nutmeg grater, but bearing the maker’s mark of Samuel Vernon of Newport RI (Circa 1720’s). During this period, nutmeg was believed to possess magical healing powers. http://www.NutmegGraters.Com

    Like

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