What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just imported … from London … Also in the last vessels from Philadelphia.”
This advertisement by Samuel Douglass and Company (formerly Douglass, Elbert, and Company) in the Georgia Gazette depicted the colonial crossroads of trade in the eighteenth century. While many shopkeepers placed notices that promoted imported goods from particular places (most notably the lengthy list advertisements of manufactured wares from England), these merchants outlined the many networks of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic and beyond.
Douglass and Company’s inventory came from diverse places. They stocked a “GENTEEL ASSORTMENT of EUROPEAN and EAST-INDIA GOODS,” an array of dry goods, housewares, and hardware. Various textiles made in the East Indies had been first transported to London before continuing on to the colonies. Other goods had been manufactured in the English provinces and then made their way to faraway markets.
Other products did not cross the Atlantic. Instead, they were part of the coastal trade that connected the colonies (and their economies) to each other. Farmers in the Middle Atlantic colonies, for instance, produced surpluses of wheat, butter, and meat that became important supplies for other English colonies in North America and, especially, the plantation economies of the West Indies. Douglass and Company received their dry goods via London, but ship bread, flour, hams, and other foodstuffs and agricultural products arrived “in the last vessels from Philadelphia.”
Finally, Douglass and Company sold other grocery items, particularly sugar, produced in the West Indies and shipped to the mainland colonies in exchange for agricultural goods. Enslaved Africans toiling on plantations had produced the sugar. Their labor was not mentioned in this advertisement, making Douglass and Company’s sketch of trading networks incomplete. The transatlantic slave trade was a major component of a vast system of exchange in the eighteenth century, one that made the others represented in Douglass and Company’s advertisement both possible and profitable. Douglass and Company may not have sold enslaved Africans themselves, but their venture depended on that endeavor. The map of commerce and exchange conjured in their advertisement was both extensive and incomplete.