April 13

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 13 - 4:13:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (April 13, 1767).

“To be sold by Public Vendue by Elias Dupee”

Auction! This advertisement features a “PUBLIC VENDUE” or auction as the way of purchasing goods. This intrigued me because when I think of auctions I think of auctioneers speaking very quickly, running through prices, and then addressing the person who was the highest bidder. How did this work in the 1760s? What was the purpose of auctions during that time?

T.H Breen provides information regarding auctions during the eighteenth century. He states, “By 1750, they functioned as a major outlet in the great chain of acquisitions.”[1] These auctions, also referred to as vendue sales, provided another method for both consumers and businessmen. They allowed consumers to buy goods that might have been harder to find as well as potentially do so at a lower rate.

Breen also discusses the controversy that lay around auctions. “Defenders insisted that the public auctions represented a marvelous innovation that served the interests of everyone involved.”[2] Opponents, however, argued that, “although the large public auction supplied some small retailers with British imports at lower rates, the properties of larger stores complained about unfair competition.”[3] Auctions provided consumers another means of purchasing goods, some of which were purchased at more reasonabe prices. They also added a different spin on consumerism and business during the eighteenth century.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Shannon explains, vendue sales were a popular method for buying and selling merchandise in eighteenth-century America. In addition to Elias Dupee’s notice about sales by “PUBLIC VENDUE” scheduled to take place in his “New-Auction Room in Royal Exchange Lane” on three afternoons later in the week, readers of the Boston-Post Boy encountered several other advertisements for auctions in the April 13, 1767, issue.

“J. Russell, Auctioneer” inserted multiple notices announcing that he sold various consumer goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE, at the Auction-Room in Queen-Street.” Some of the items up for bid, including “A Variety of House Furniture,” seemed to be secondhand goods. This combination of factors did indeed make a greater variety of goods accessible to greater numbers of consumers: used goods already sold for reduced prices compared to new ones and the variable winning bids at vendue sales sometimes drove those prices even lower. Auctions also reduced prices of popular commodities sold by retailers. One of Russell’s advertisements promoted “A quantity of very good Brown SUGARS, suitable for Shop-keepers or private Families.” Even if consumers did not have a chance to cut out the middleman (or middlewoman, given the number of female shopkeepers in port cities) by attending this auction, they stood to benefit when retailers passed on the savings.

In addition to facilitating commercial transactions, vendue sales were also social events. In an earlier draft, Shannon imagined residents of Boston gathering to bid on items of interest and interacting with each other in the process. This created a very different atmosphere for shopping than the customers of Frederick William Geyer, John Gillespie, and Susanna Renken – all of whom advertised their shops in the same issue of the Boston Post-Boy – experienced in one-on-one transactions with shopkeepers. Earlier this week Shannon argued that the consumer revolution was fueled in part by competition among colonists. Displaying possessions, she asserted, made consumption a public practice. Participating in auctions also became a social ritual, one that made the process of buying and selling a communal, rather than private, experience.

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[1] T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 140.

[2] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 141.

[3] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 142.

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