June 20

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

Jun 20 - 6:20:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 20, 1767).

“For further Particulars inquire of EDWARD SPALDING, in Providence.”

Edward Spalding (sometimes Spauldin in other advertisements) had two purposes when he took an advertisement in the Providence Gazette in the spring of 1767. First, he wished to sell a farm in Coventry. As long as he was purchasing space in the newspaper, he also opted to promote his business. He reminded readers that he “still carries on the Business of cleaning and repairing CLOCKS and WATCHES” at his shop across the street from the printing office. In the past, Spalding advertised fairly regularly. He was one of the first advertisers to insert commercial notices in the Providence Gazette when it resumed publication the previous year. He must have considered it a good return on his investment since he decided to include commercial marketing at the end of his notice concerning real estate.

Spalding’s hybrid advertisement presents a conundrum for conducting any sort of quantitative study of advertising in eighteenth-century America. Newspapers of the era did not have classifieds. They did not organize advertisements in any particular order or by categories that suggested the general purpose of the notices. Sometimes, as seen here, individual advertisements had multiple purposes. Spalding and the printers of the Providence Gazette did not classify this advertisement. How should historians do so? It would not be appropriate to categorize it solely as a real estate notice or solely as marketing consumer goods and services. More appropriately, it should count as both, but that sort of double counting does not address another issue. Together or separately, both halves of Spalding’s advertisement were relatively short compared to many others for both real estate and consumer goods and services inserted in eighteenth-century newspapers. This suggests that tabulating column inches devoted to advertisements (or portions of advertisements) might produce more accurate data for assessing the proliferation of advertising in relation to news and other content as well as comparing the quantity of advertising space utilized for various purposes. This, however, would be extremely labor intensive. It also requires access to the original newspapers rather than digital surrogates. Working with digitized sources allows for examining other sorts of questions concerning advertising in early America.

Earlier in my career I was much more enthusiastic about incorporating quantitative analysis into my study of advertisements for consumer goods and services in eighteenth-century America. Over time, however, I have determined that identifying general trends rather than hard numbers provides a sufficiently accurate portrait of the expansion of advertising in the era that the colonies became a nation.

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