GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“West India RUM by the Hogshead or Barrel, … Good Molasses.”
I chose this advertisement because I recognized an important product, “West India Rum.” The economy of the British North American colonies greatly depended on a transatlantic system of export and import. This included several items from around the globe, like fabrics, tea, and rum.
Rum was especially integral to the colonies’ economy, in part because alcohol was favored for consumption. One estimate claims that for every adult male approximately 20 gallons of rum were consumed per year. The high rate of consumption led to demand for more rum. One way to have a surplus was to distill molasses and create more rum. This created a booming industry in the colonies. According to John J. McCusker, “The distilling of rum from molasses created a substantial colonial industry, employing local capital, management skills, and labor. Steadily in demand, rum and molasses represented for the colonial economy almost a currency.” Not only was rum a commodity traded around the world, distilling it was also an opportunity to establish businesses within the colonies and contribute to the local economy.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Unlike modern advertisements that often prominently feature prices as a means of enticing potential customers (and manipulating their perceptions, such as $99.99 rather than $100), eighteenth-century advertisements rarely listed prices for the goods they marketed. Some merchants and shopkeepers deviated from that rule, especially those who sold some of the most popular commodities that retailers and end-use consumers tended to purchase in volume.
For instance, in the same issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette as today’s advertisement placed by Noah Parker, three of his competitors did include prices for some, but not all, of the commodities they listed. Henry Appleton noted prices for “Loaf Sugar” and “BEST London BOHEA TEA, by the Hundred, Dozen, or single Pound,” but did not reveal how much he charged for chocolate, rice, or “All sorts of West India Goods.” Edward Sherburne also the “Best of BOHEA TEA,” barely undercutting Appleton’s price: £4 15s Old Tenor per pound instead of £4 16s OT per pound. Like Parker, George Turner provided prices for only some of his goods (rum, sugar, coffee, and “COTTON-WOOL”).
Richard Champney perhaps came closest to modern marketing methods with his version of “limited time only” prices for coffee, which he sold at “22s. Old Tenor per pound.” However, he did not “promise to sell at that Price long, as the late remarkable Frost in the West Indies, may have the same effect on Coffee, as on Limes; therefore probably that Article may be scarce and dear.” Champney used temporarily low prices and the specter of scarcity to drive customers to his shop.
That four advertisers listed prices in a single issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette was remarkable and extraordinary. It was not uncommon for entire issues to be devoid of specific pricing in advertisements. Most merchants and shopkeepers adopted the approach taken by Noah Parker, relying on the goods themselves to attract customers but not specifying prices in the advertisements. Many made general appeals to price, promising “low costs” or “reasonable rates.” Parker did not go even that far. Instead he invited “those who desire to know the Price to call and see the Articles.” In so doing he echoed an argument sometimes made by other advertisers: specifying a particular price was meaningless in the absence of examining the quality of the merchandise.
 John J. McCusker, “The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775,” Journal of Economic History 30, no. 1 (March 1970): 247.
 McCusker, “Rum Trade,” 247.