April 16

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 16 - 4:16:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 16, 1767).

“A Fresh Assortment of English GOODS.”

American colonists loved British goods! This gave many a sense of national pride, but some also believed that these goods gave them a boost in status. According to the public historians at Colonial Williamsburg, “As society became more mobile, houses, land, and livestock alone no longer communicated social rank. By the end of the seventeenth century, ordinary men and women began to demand consumer goods that indicated their status.” These were the roots of the consumer revolution in eighteenth-century America. “Items that once were considered luxuries reserved for the highest ranks began to ‘trickle down’ to common households.” Starting in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century Americans purchased greater amounts of goods, such as those among the “Fresh Assortment of English GOODS” advertised by Joshua Gardner and Company. The shopkeepers may have realized the demand for these imported goods and not considered it necessary to write much about them. This advertisement demonstrates increased demand for consumer goods which became easier for all social classes – elites, middling and poorer sorts, “and occasionally even slaves” – to attain in the American colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Jonathan’s analysis of Joshua Gardner and Company’s advertisement represents a popular interpretation of the cause of the consumer revolution. Many historians and other scholars argue that incipient demand fueled the expansion of purchasing, possessing, and displaying a vast array of goods by many different sorts of consumers in the British Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Producers, suppliers, and retailers merely responded to the desires and demands of customers that ranked not only among the elite but also the middling sort and others who purchased what they could acquire when they could afford it (and, thanks to networks of credit, sometimes even when they could not yet afford it).

Today’s advertisement certainly lends that impression. After all, it seems to do little more than announce that Gardner and Company sold imported English goods. William Greenleaf’s advertisement, immediately above it, appeared almost identical. It informed customers that he stocked “A Fresh Assortment of Goods” imported on the same ship that carried Gardner and Company’s inventory. William Fisher’s advertisement, immediately below, stated that he sold “A General Assortment of English GOODS,” also imported “in Capt. Jenkins, who is just arrived from LONDON.” Some argue that such advertisements, which might better be described as notices given that they seem to merely announce the availability of goods that consumers already wanted, could be used to make convincing arguments about the importance of demand as the primary cause of the consumer revolution.

Doing so, however, overlooks both the innovative marketing efforts to incite demand that regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers (and via other advertising ephemera, including trade cards, bill heads, catalogs, broadsides, magazine wrappers, circular letters, subscription notices, and furniture labels) and aspects of Gardner and Company’s advertisement not apparent at first glance.

For instance, note that Gardner and Company indicate their “Fresh Assortment” was imported “In the Hawk, Capt. Jenkins, from LONDON.” According to the shipping news on the previous page, the Hawk had arrived in port within the past week. Gardner and Company (as well as Greenleaf and Fisher) may not have had time to unpack all their new wares or write more extensive copy, but they did rush to Richard Draper’s printing office to have their advertisements inserted as quickly as possible. Rather than simply announce they carried goods that colonists already desired, these advertisers attempted to incite demand by noting that they sold the most current fashions and housewares from the cosmopolitan center of the empire. Furthermore, Gardner and Company engaged in other marketing efforts in their short advertisement. Promising an “Assortment” promoted consumer choice. Invoking low prices helped to convince potential customers to make purchases.

Jonathan and I place different emphasis on the importance of consumer demand in the eighteenth century. Drawing on one strand of scholarship, arguably the more prominent one, he asserts that Gardner and Company’s advertisement reacted to existing demand. That very well may have been the case, but I argue that certain aspects suggest that the shopkeepers also worked to create demand. More generally, advertising played a significant role in inciting demand throughout the eighteenth century. Early American merchants, shopkeepers, and others who produced and sold goods encouraged potential customers to desire their wares.

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