What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He intends to keep an Auction of BOOKS and JEWELLERY.”
Shopkeepers who advertised merchandise for retail sale in colonial newspapers competed with vendue masters (or auctioneers) who provided a popular alternative means of acquiring consumer goods, both new and secondhand. Announcements for vendue sales, often accompanied by lists of items up for auction, appeared in some eighteenth-century newspapers nearly as frequently as advertisements placed by shopkeepers. Compared to retailers, however, many vendue masters did not devote as much effort to marketing goods soon to go up for bidding, perhaps because one of the most common appeals deployed by shopkeepers – low prices – was an inherent part of auction sales. Vendue masters could not guarantee bargains, but each and every sale promised the possibility of a great deal that could not be beat by haggling with shopkeepers. Although their advertisements did not go into as much detail as those placed by retailers, auctioneers also incorporated other popular appeals to attract potential customers, including quality, fashion, and consumer choice. Shopkeepers may have refined these strategies and created other innovative methods of marketing their wares as a means of competing with the deep discounts made possible by selling goods to the highest bidders.
That their newspaper notices differed from shopkeepers’ advertisements does not mean, however, that vendue masters were indifferent marketers. They invested their energy in other means of inciting demand and enticing potential customers to visit their action rooms. In December 1767, for instance, the “PUBLIC VENDUE MASTER” in Philadelphia announced that he “intends to keep an Auction of BOOKS and JEWELLERY.” He called on colonists “who have any to dispose of” to contact him with a list of items they wished to include in the auction. He requested that sellers contact him by the end of the month so their items “may be inserted in the first Catalogue.” In compiling and distributing auction catalogs, vendue masters added another genre to the extensive array of eighteenth-century printed advertising media that included broadsides, trade cards, billheads, furniture labels, magazine wrappers, and newspaper notices. Auction catalogs served many purposes. In contrast to relatively short advertisements in newspapers, they much more effectively invoked consumer choice by elaborating on the goods going up for bidding. Catalogs prompted potential customers to imagine possessing the items listed and to anticipate participating in the vendue. In addition to making purchases, that participation could include socializing with others who gathered for the sale before, during, and after the auction. Catalogs also guided consumers through vendues, operating as programs that they could follow or even annotate.
Philadelphia’s public vendue master alerted potential customers about an upcoming auction for books and jewelry, but publication and dissemination of an auction catalog allowed for targeted marketing of colonists most likely to participate in this sale. To that end, catalogs offered certain advantages over newspaper advertisements.