What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Dunstable Hats, being a new Fashion.”
In December 1767, shopkeeper William McCrackan began placing advertisements for “very neat Assortment of Winter Goods” in the Connecticut Journal, a newspaper founded just two months earlier. Almost as soon as it was established, colonial retailers used the advertising pages of the new publication to teach potential customers about consumer goods in order to incite demand and generate sales.
McCrackan operated his shop in New Haven in the midst of a consumer revolution. Prospective customers spoke the language of consumption. In particular, they could identify and distinguish among a variety of imported textiles – like “Callimancoes,” “Camblets,” and “Ratteens” – without descriptions from those who sold them. Some products, however, especially those recently introduced to the market, required at least some explanation. Such was the case for “Dunstable Hats” and consumers in New Haven and its hinterland. Realizing that some colonists might not be familiar with that particular item, McCrackan advertised them as “Dunstable Hats, being a new Fashion.” Almost simultaneously, shopkeeper Henry Wilmot advertised “Leghorne, Dunstable and Skelliton hats, trimmed in the newest fashion” in the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy. Unlike McCrackan’s perspective on colonists in rural Connecticut, Wilmot assumed that residents of the busy urban port were already acquainted with Dunstable hats, yet he did make a point of asserting that the ones he stocked had been “trimmed in the newest fashion.” Even familiar accessories could be updated to reflect evolving tastes.
McCrackan provided no description of Dunstable hats beyond the short interjection that they represented “a new Fashion.” Still, that likely would have been sufficient to provoke curiosity among some prospective customers, drawing them into his shop to view and converse about the hats and other merchandise. For those who desired to imagine that they participated in the same culture of consumption as residents of cosmopolitan London, despite their distance from the metropole, McCrackan offered a helpful update about prevailing tastes, alerting them to the latest trends. His advertisement did more than merely announce the availability of goods. It encouraged an interest in the novel and the new in order to stimulate consumer demand.