What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers.”
Philip Potter placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce that “he has just opened a Shop, and received a great Variety of fashionable English and India Goods.” In the process of promoting his own wares, Potter made reference to other shopkeepers in the city.
To help potential customers find his shop, Potter indicated that it was located “AT THE WEST END OF THE GREAT BRIDGE, AND NEAR Messrs. BLACK and STEWART.” While this may have called attention to a competitor (who happened to advertise on the following page of the same issue), the public’s familiarity with Black and Stewart and where they kept shop may have outweighed any risk of giving them free publicity. After all, Potter’s new shop would fail if customers could not find it, making it necessary to refer to prominent landmarks in an era before standardized street numbers.
Potter also mentioned two shopkeepers in North Providence, proclaiming that “he will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers, or any other Person in this Town.” Merchants and shopkeepers commonly promised potential customers that they offered the best prices, but rarely did they single out specific competitors for special notice. For their part, Benjamin and Edward Thurber had previously advertised that their prices were “as low as any Person in this or the neighboring Towns, or in North-America.” They made a bold claim to the lowest prices on the continent, but they did not name any of their competitors. Did Potter refer to them because they had indeed established a reputation among consumers for particularly low prices? In promoting his own shop, did he also acknowledge the Thurbers as the shopkeepers most likely to offer great deals for shoppers? Did Potter give voice to a general sentiment among Providence residents? If the Thurbers were indeed known to offer the lowest prices, then Potter used their reputation to his own advantage, provided that he actually matched their prices when customers visited his shop.
Most local readers of the Providence Gazette would have been familiar with the commercial landscape of their city. Rather than pretend that his competitors did not exist, Potter mobilized general knowledge about their businesses to attract customers to his own shop.