What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SAGATHIES, duroys, grandurells.”
In March 1768, John Carter advertised dozens of items in stock at his store in Williamsburg, placing identical notices in the Virginia Gazette published by Alexander Purdie and John Dixon and the Virginia Gazette published by William Rind. His inventory included an array of textiles, among them “SAGATHIES, duroys, grandurells, … black silk satinet, black velverets, black and coloured jennets, silk damascus, … nankeen, India dimity, … [and] warpt and stript hollands.” The names of fabrics on this list seem incomprehensible to most twenty-first-century readers, but they would have been quite familiar to eighteenth-century readers and consumers throughout the British Atlantic world. Merchants and shopkeepers from New England to Georgia published similar lists in the advertisements they inserted in local newspapers.
Wholesalers and retailers distributed such lists with full confidence that their prospective customers understood this language of consumption. They knew that readers possessed such familiarity with imported textiles that they could make distinctions between, for instance, duroys and jennets, without needing additional explanation in the advertisements. They expected that consumers could assess the relative cost and quality of certain fabrics from the names alone. In turn, both sellers and prospective customers conceived of a hierarchy of textiles tied to the status of those who most often purchased or donned them. For example, they associated certain textiles, such as osnaburgs, with laboring and enslaved people, fully aware that middling sorts and the gentry had the means to avoid such coarse fabric.
Phrases like “blue cambrick handkerchiefs” and “yellow flowered serges for table covers” might not conjure particularly vivid images for modern readers, but they would have for the colonists who read Carter’s advertisement in the 1760s. Colonial consumers would have been able to imagine not only the appearance of these and other items but also how they felt to touch or to wear. This testifies to how actively colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, acquiring both goods and knowledge of an extensive assortment of items available in the marketplace.