What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“They have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.”
No publicity is bad publicity. That may have been the sentiment that motivated Black and Stewart when they placed this advertisement in the Providence Gazette. As part of their attempt to market tea, rum, molasses, and sugar, the partners aired their dirty laundry in the public prints.
Black and Stewart did not go into the particulars of what had transpired, but they did inform readers “that through the Knavery of some, and Collusion of others, they have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.” Perhaps in a town the size of Providence it was not necessary to go into more detail. Black and Stewart may have been referencing a tale that local readers already knew, gossip that had already spread. They may have felt that acknowledging their difficulties presented the better path than trying to pretend that the unfortunate situation did not exist.
At the same time, the partners also attempted to generate sympathy for their plight. Even if readers did not know the specifics, they could still be moved that Black and Stewart “stand in Need of Cash.” The shopkeepers first emphasized their own needs and how they would benefit from commercial transactions, but then they pivoted to stress the benefits accrued to potential customers who chose to patronize their business. They noted that competitors “sell some Goods below Prime Cost” (perhaps as what would be called loss leaders today), prompting Black and Stewart to offer discounted prices on several popular items. To aid potential customers in comparison shopping, they listed prices for tea, rum, molasses, and sugar. They also issued a guarantee on the tea, which was “warranted good” but would be “taken back and the Money returned” if customers were not satisfied. If they could get customers though the door to purchase these items, some might also make selections from among the “Variety of English and West-India Goods” they also stocked.
Some readers may have found the story of Black and Stewart’s difficulties untoward, but the shopkeepers gambled that they could mobilize their tale of woe to attract customers. They portrayed their disappointments in business as opportunities for customers to benefit from lower prices. The marketplace could be cruel, but this afforded consumers victories on occasion. Black and Stewart invited potential customers to take advantage of their misfortunes, giving unspoken assurances that they could trust the deals were real since the shopkeepers were in such dire straits.