GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A FRESH and NEW Assortment of English and India Goods.”
I chose this advertisement because it specifically mentioned English products. One thing that has surprised me over the course of my research into consumer culture is how much Americans tried to emulate British society in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. This is interesting because in the 1760s and 1770s colonists had continent-wide movements to reject both British importations and government.
To understand the original interest in British goods, even so close to the American Revolution, what the products represented has to be understood. In 1767 many colonists viewed England, especially London, as very genteel and sophisticated. This idea generated a sizable demand for imported goods. The motivation for owning these goods, however useful they might have been, was not purely functional. Many colonists had a mindset like this: the more English items owned, the more refined (and wealthy) a person was. This assumption went both ways. If a colonist owned an English item, it not only boosted that person’s understanding of their personal socioeconomic status, but also affected their peers’ judgment. In addition to the material possessions, even the use of such these products came under scrutiny of fellow colonists. As the public historians at Colonial Williamsburg explain, “Those who owned the ‘right stuff’ without knowing how to use it properly gave themselves away as imposters.” The social rituals and protocols associated with many goods were complicated, and no one wanted to seem like an uncouth pretender. Overall, if colonists possessed a fashionable product, especially if it was an object associated with genteel society, they could express their real (or perceived) higher status, for just a small fee to a seller like Thompson and Arnold.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Price. Choice. Fashion. These were some of the most common appeals to consumers that appeared in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. As Megan notes, Thompson and Arnold implicitly advanced an appeal to fashion when they announced that they sold imported English goods. In addition, they made more explicit and extensive appeals to price and choice in their advertisement published in the Providence Gazette on April 4, 1767. Many advertisers merely made passing or brief mentions of the prices they charged for vast assortments of imported goods, but Thompson and Arnold made variations on these standard appeals in order to attract potential customers’ attention.
For instance, the shopkeepers did not resort to stating that they stocked an “assortment of goods.” Instead, they informed readers that their inventory included “Goods suitable for Town and Country, Winter and Summer.” In fact, they had such a broad array of merchandise that “to enumerate the Articles would take up too much Room for a News-Paper.” (Despite that protest, Thompson and Arnold previously published list-style advertisements that named dozens of imported goods they sold, and in recent months the Providence Gazette had repeatedly printed full-page advertisements for a variety of local shopkeepers, including Thompson and Arnold.) The partners boldly declared that they carried “as great a Variety of Article as can be found in any one Store in New-England.” Most advertisers promoted an assortment of goods as a means of allowing consumers to make choices that corresponded to their own tastes, choices that allowed them to make statements, as Megan notes, about their character, status, and familiarity with the rituals of gentility. Thompson and Arnold offered a different explanation for why it was significant that they carried such a vast variety of goods: “their Assortment is so large they hope to save their Customers the Trouble of going through the Town to supply themselves with the Necessaries they may want.” In presenting customers with so many goods that they “would take up too much Room” to list them in their advertisement, Thompson and Arnold underscored that they sold convenience in addition to choice, an innovative variation on one of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements.