What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The TOWN COUNCIL … will meet … to grant Licenses for keeping Taverns, Ale-Houses, and retailing Wines, and all Sorts of strong Liquors.”
Colonists placed advertisements of all sorts in eighteenth-century newspapers. Although the Adverts 250 Project focuses primarily on the marketing of consumer goods and services and the commodification of enslaved men, women, and children, other kinds of advertisements merit occasional consideration as well. Various legal notices appeared next to, above, and below advertisements placed by merchants, retailers, and advertisers, undifferentiated from each other in an era before printers and publishers devised any sort of classification system to organize the paid notices in their newspapers. In addition, some eighteenth-century advertisements with multiple purposes defied easy categorization.
John Cole’s advertisement in the October 3, 1767, issue of the Providence Gazette, however, had a single purpose. Cole, the president of the town council inserted the notice to inform residents of the port that the council would meet on the following Tuesday “in order to grant Licences for keeping Taverns, Ale-Houses, and retailing Wines, and all Sorts of strong Liquors.” On behalf of the council, he instructed anyone who wished to receive a license to “make Application” at the appointed time and place. He also issued a warning, noting that “the Laws of this Colony are extreamly, tho’ justly, severe.” Accordingly, those who operated “Public Houses” without being licensed by the council would be “prosecuted with the utmost Rigour.” Good order had to be maintained.
This legal notice indicates some of the parameters for participating in commerce in the colonial period. Cole and the town council did not promote consumption of particular “Wines, and all Sorts of strong Liquors,” but they did oversee the mechanisms for retailers and tavern-keepers to sell such beverages legally. Other advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers regularly included imported wines and spirits, signaling that those entrepreneurs had already been through the process of appearing before the town council to receive a license. Otherwise, their advertisements would have alerted local authorities that they flouted the law. Those who sold wines and liquors had to live up to certain responsibilities. Today’s advertisement suggests that maintaining commercial order also played an important role in maintaining social order.