March 12

GUEST CURATOR: Daniel McDermott

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

Mar 12 - 3:12:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (March 12, 1767).

“A few Firkins choice Irish Butter.”

The advertisement featured today seems to be a standard advertisement for merchants. Blanchard and Hancock had an extensive list of goods for sale at their shop. The second item listed (above the two columns of other goods) was imported Irish butter. This advertisement for “A few firkins choice Irish Butter” can tell us a lot about butter and urban populations.

According to Joan Jensen, as farm families looked to maximize their profits in order to participate in the expanding consumer economy, they looked to diversify their production. In the Middle Atlantic, women’s involvement shifted from textile production to butter throughout the eighteenth century. While urban populations were growing, the market for agricultural goods was too. Although domestic demand for butter was high, a majority of farms from the Middle Atlantic made their profits on butter from exporting it to the West Indies. Even at the start of the nineteenth century when export demands were lower, the domestic market kept the farms making butter profitable.[1]

For urban populations, the butter market was different. Health ordinances prohibited cows in some urban areas around 1760; therefore no one in cities, such as Boston, was making their own butter. As the market for Mid-Atlantic butter shifted from the West Indies to the domestic market, imports such as Irish butter would have competed with Pennsylvania butter.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As we discussed which aspects of today’s advertisement to examine in greater detail, Daniel and I decided that it offered an opportunity to acknowledge the coastal trade in the eighteenth century, a network of exchange sometimes overshadowed by the project’s emphasis on imported textiles, housewares, hardware, and every other “very large Assortment of English & India GOODS” (to use the description from Jolley Allen’s advertisement in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette). Daniel astutely notes that by the late 1760s the “few Firkins choice Irish Butter” imported by Blanchard and Hancock likely competed with butter produced by women in Pennsylvania and shipped to American ports (as well as the West Indies).

Historians consult a variety of sources, including letters, bills of lading, and ledgers kept by merchants, to reconstruct the coastal trade in early America, but Daniel and I identified additional evidence on the same page of the Massachusetts Gazette as Blanchard and Hancock’s advertisement. Another notice announced “For NEW-YORK. The Schooner Peggy, William Willson, Master, will sail by the 20th of March Instant, now laying at Long Wharf; and ready for Goods on Freight or Passengers.”

The shipping news also illustrated the vibrant coastal trade. The Customs House reported that four ships had “Entred In” during the previous week, identifying them by their captains: “Paine from Virginia; Tower from North Carolina; Ingraham from Heneago; Downes from Monte Christi.” None made a transatlantic voyage directly to Boston; two arrived from other colonies in North America and two from the West Indies. Similarly, the Customs House recorded that four ships and their masters had recently “Cleared Out,” including “Smith for New York; Stone for Philadelphia; Spence for North Carolina; Jones for West-Indies.” Three were headed to other coastal areas and one to the West Indies. Finally, the Customs House listed six vessels “Outward Bound” in the coming weeks: “Willson for New York; Smith for Philadelphia; Gray for Maryland; Harris for West-Indies; Pale and Sheppard for Newfoundland; Omand for Leith.” This represented a greater diversity of destinations, with ships and cargo headed to ports north and south along the Atlantic coast, the West Indies, and Great Britain.

Eighteenth-century readers and consumers would not have considered Blanchard and Hancock’s “few Firkins choice Irish Butter” in isolation. Instead, they would have placed that commodity within extensive networks of trade that not only crisscrossed the Atlantic but oftentimes incorporated shorter voyages between colonies along the North American coast.

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[1] For more on the production and sale of American butter in the late eighteenth-century, see Joan Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), especially the chapter on “The Economics of the Butter Trade,” 79-91.

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