What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“They are much the same in all the Stores.”
Many eighteenth-century shopkeepers promoted their merchandise by publishing extensive lists of their inventory. They presented potential customers with a multitude of choices amongst the “general Assortment of English and India GOODS” they imported. Three shopkeepers – Joshua Blanchard, Joshua Gardner and Company, and Clement Jackson – each inserted list-style advertisements that extended half a column or more in the May 14, 1767, issue of the Massachusetts Gazette. Each named dozens of items that readers could purchase in their shops.
Nathaniel Appleton saw little sense in paying for such extensive advertisements, especially not when his competitors already did so. Yet he did not want to lose any prospective customers who might assume that his failure to list so many goods indicated that he had an inferior selection. To that end, he supplemented his assertion that he carried a “general Assortment” of goods with a nota bene that offered further explanation: “The Articles of English Goods are not enumerated, as they are much the same in all the Stores that import direct from LONDON.”
Appleton poked at his competitors, suggesting that one of the most popular marketing methods employed by other shopkeepers might be pointless. He carried the same goods as his competitors but had the good sense not to attempt to manipulate potential consumers with efforts to overwhelm them with extensive advertisements. He acknowledged standardization in consumer culture, noting that retailers generally depended on the same suppliers.
Appleton was not the only retailer to critique lengthy list-style advertisements. Just ten days earlier Gilbert Deblois’ advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post proclaimed that his inventory “consist[ed] of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements,” though that did not prevent him for providing an abbreviated list of his own. A couple of months earlier Benjamin Thurber and Edward Thurber inserted a notice in the Providence Gazette in which they announced that they stocked “too many [goods] … to enumerate each Particular in an Advertisement.” In addition, refusing to take on the costs of doing so allowed them to keep their prices low. At the beginning of the year, Joshua Blanchard deployed a similar argument as he lambasted the list-style advertisements published by his competitors: “The VERY LOW Price at which he sells will not afford a lengthy Advertisement, enumerating every Particular, even to Pins and Needles.” Blachard apparently had a change of heart. His lengthy advertisement “enumerating” dozens of items “Imported from LONDON” appeared immediately to the right of Appleton’s notice in the May 14 issue. Blanchard paid for his advertisement, but Appleton benefited from its proximity to his own.
Eighteenth-century advertisers like Appleton played with the conventions developing around consumer marketing, sometimes critiquing them if they thought doing so might result in some advantage or attract customers bored with the usual sorts of appeals.