What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A large and general assortment of MERCHANDIZE.”
Shopkeepers and merchants frequently made appeals to consumer choice as they encouraged readers of colonial newspapers to become consumers of imported goods. Some considered it sufficient to inform prospective customers that they carried a vast array of merchandise. In the supplement that accompanied the September 29, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, one brief advertisement simply stated, “SAMUEL SANSOM, junior, HAS just imported in the Nancy, Captain Leech, and has for sale at his store, two doors above the City Vendue House, in Front-street, A fresh assortment of merchandize, on reasonable terms, for cash or short credit.” In another equally brief advertisement, Mifflin and Dean promoted “A LARGE Assortment of Fall GOODS, which they are now opening, at their Store.” Both advertisements comprised only five lines, making them some of the shortest that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
In contrast, Jonathan Zane placed one of the longest advertisements: ninety-nine lines detailing the “large and general assortment of MERCHANDIZE” at his shop “at the sign of the Crown, Cannister and Handsaw.” His advertisement extended three-quarters of a column. Zane devoted ninety lines to enumerating the goods he had “Just imported in the last vessels from London and Bristol,” everything from “iron pots, kettles, skillets, Dutch ovens, and scowered cart and waggon boxes” to “common spectacles” to “glovers and common sewing needles.” Even the descriptions of some types of merchandise promised even greater variety, including “a large assortment of Barlow’s and other penknives” and “a very large and neat assortment of brass furniture of various sizes and patterns.” Still, the list was not exhaustive. Zane concluded with “&c. &c. &c.” (the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera) to indicate that prospective customers could expect to encounter even more treasures when they visited his shop.
Although Zane took the list-style advertisement to an extreme, publishing an extensive catalog of his inventory, he was not alone in presenting consumers with evidence of the choices he made available to them. Hugh Donnaldson, Robert Strettell Jones, Francis and Tilghman, James Gordon, and other merchants and shopkeepers published their own litanies of goods, though they limited the length of their advertisements to fifteen to thirty lines, plenty of space for listing dozens of items they stocked. Whether enumerating many different kinds of imported goods or simply underscoring “A large ASSORTMENT of GOODS” with no further elaboration, advertisers aimed to stimulate consumer demand by encouraging prospective customers to contemplate the many options available in the colonial marketplace.