April 4

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 4 - 4:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 4, 1767).

“Said OLNEY has a few goods remaining yet unsold, which he will sell cheap for cash.”

I chose this advertisement because it piqued my interest. Despite the short nature of the consumer portion it reminded me of something important. Throughout navigating newspapers and collecting advertisements I have seen plenty of advertisements that talked about selling for cash or making deals with good credit. But one thing I never really thought about was the actual currency of colonial America. What was this cash? Was there a uniform currency accepted throughout all the colonies? Was money mostly coins or paper?

I did some research into it. Currency, as it happens, had a great variety in eighteenth-century America. There was no one type of universal payment; instead, there was an astounding diversity. Ron Michener discusses this confusing system of currency in the colonies. “The monetary arrangements in use in America before the Revolution were extremely varied. Each colony had its own conventions, tender laws, and coin ratings, and each issued its own paper money.” The customs regarding payment were specific to each colony. For example, in 1750 Massachusetts prohibited the use of paper money. Anything other than “specie,” gold or silver coinage, was utterly valueless there.

Also, colonists could not travel from New Jersey to Rhode Island, for instance, and expect to buy something using printed currency. They had to engage in some type of exchange prior to payment. In addition, throughout the colonies, foreign currency continued to be accepted as legal payment: “Colonists assigned local currency values to foreign specie coins circulating there in … pounds, shillings and pence.” These coins could include British or Spanish money. This caused a lot of irregularity in transactions because, depending on location, the amount stated could be measured using one type of specie or currency, and the buyer could use another type of payment. For example, a seller could ask for five South Carolina dollars for an item, and the buyer could then pay in Spanish specie. There must have been a lot of confusion and mathematical calculations happening in that era!

Over the course of my exploration I realized that there were many different types of money exchanged for goods and which coins or bills were accepted really depended on the location and year, The use of cash in America is not as simple as I originally thought; it has a long and complicated history.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Extensive networks of credit facilitated the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Even as merchants and shopkeepers attempted to incite greater demand (as Joseph Olney, Jr., did when he announced he had “a few goods remaining yet unsold), their advertisements testified to generous credit they extended to customers who obtained the “baubles of Britain” from them. Merchants and shopkeepers were middlemen and –women, often caught in expanding transatlantic webs of credit themselves. Note that Olney justified his decision to call in the debts owed to him by explaining that doing so was a necessity so that he, in turn, would be “enabled to discharge all demands that lay against himself.” Just as his customers owed him money, Olney was indebted to those who supplied him with the merchandise he sold.

Like many others who placed similar notices in the 1760s, Olney seized an opportunity to generate more revenue by following his request for payment with a brief promotion of his current inventory. In almost every example, the advertisers suggested that they were no longer in the business of extending credit to customers. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem, especially considering that earlier in the advertisement Olney threatened legal action against anyone who “refuse[d] to comply with this reasonable request” for payment. Because Olney wanted to spare himself the hassle of making “trouble at next June court,” he indicated that he would sell his remaining goods “for cash.” He made no mention of any form of credit, whether “by Note, Book Account, or otherwise.”

Olney’s advertisement was much less striking than many others that included extensive lists of merchandise or made elaborate appeals to potential customers. It served a necessary purpose, however, as he went about operating his business, just as similar advertisements did for his counterparts and competitors throughout the colonies.

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