What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Cheaper for Cash than can be had at Capt. Nathl. Backus’s, or any Store in Norwich.”
Ebenezer Coburn sold “All Sorts of Iron-Mongery, and Cutlery Ware … at his Shop … at the Sign of the Black Horse, at Norwich-Landing” in Connecticut. In marketing his wares, he resorted to one of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, low prices, promising that customers could purchase his merchandise “cheaper for Cash” from him than from “any store in Norwich.” Merchants and shopkeepers throughout the colonies frequently made similar claims. Many simply stated that they had low prices, but others specified that they offered the best prices in town and would not be undersold by any of their competitors. A few even boasted that they offered the lowest prices in the entire colony or the region, especially in New England.
In that regard, Coburn’s notice replicated standard advertising practices. Yet he deviated from most other advertisements in one significant way: he named one of his competitors and explicitly stated that his prices were lower. Before even mentioning other shops in Norwich, Coburn singled out Captain Nathaniel Backus. In their advertisements, most shopkeepers either graciously pretended that their competitors did not exist or politely acknowledged them by indicating that their own shop had the best prices. Coburn, on the other hand, fired a shot in a price war with Backus, challenging consumers to take special note of what the captain charged for his wares.
Why did Coburn take aim at Backus in particular? Was the captain the most prominent trader in Norwich and thus Coburn’s most significant competitor? Had Backus established a reputation for especially low prices that Coburn hoped to turn to his advantage? Did some sort of personal, rather than professional, animosity exist between Coburn and Backus? The captain was a man of some prominence in Norwich, a descendent of the founders of the town and one of only six men who owned his own carriage prior to the Revolution. He exercised some clout in the local marketplace.
Something happened relatively recently that caused Coburn to compare their prices. Two weeks earlier he had published a nearly identical advertisement in the New-London Gazette; it did not mention Backus or that Coburn sold “by Wholesale or Retail.” Given the number of vessels that had “Entered In” according to the recent shipping news, Backus very well may have recently received a large shipment of imported goods, enough to seemingly flood the local market in Norwich. By naming Backus in particular, Coburn may have been trying to gain ground on his most prominent and most significant competitor, one who commanded the attention of local consumers even without advertising in the New-London Gazette.