March 17

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Journal (March 17, 1769).

“Several Setts of POT-ASH KITTLES and COOLERS.”

When I looked at this advertisement I had no idea what “Pot-Ash” was or its uses. According to William E. Burns in Science and Technology in Colonial America, “Wood burned to ashes was the raw material for the creation of the most important alkali of the early modern chemical world, a crude form of potassium carbonate called potash.” Burns further explains that “potash making in America began as a profitable sideline to the necessary work of clearing trees from land for farming.” What were its uses? It was part of household soapmaking and glass manufacture. Burns says that “[s]mall amounts were even used in baking to help cakes rise.” How was potash made? It “was made was made by burning logs and other wood to ashes, then placing the ashes in a barrel lined with twigs and straw. … Potash makers poured water on top of the ashes, dissolving out the salts.” This resulted in lye that could be used to make soap. For other uses, the water containing potash lye “was then evaporated in an iron kettle and the remaining substance, ‘brown salt’ was heated in a smaller kettle until most of the original organic matter was gone.”[1] These were the “POT-ASH KITTLES” advertised by R. Walker of Stratford, Connecticut. Colonists made money by selling the potash.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Zach indicates, many colonists participated in potash production by the late 1760s. In this notice from the Connecticut Journal, R. Walker advertised some of the equipment necessary for making potash. How significant was potash to the colonial American economy? Thomas L. Purvis states that the industry did not take off until the 1750s, even though the colonies had plenty of wood that could have been used to produce potash. In 1751, “Parliament exempted American potash from British import duties,” leading to the “large scale production of potash” in the colonies. While colonists used some of this potash in their own homes, they also exported it in significant quantities in the 1760s and 1770s.

Purvis reports that Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Boston, Lancaster, and Marlborough, all in Massachusetts, briefly became centers of potash production. Partnerships arose at each location as entrepreneurs invested in the equipment necessary to make potash. In the first dozen years, however, they experienced narrow profit margins and most went out of business. However, prospects improved after 1763. By 1775, Purvis calculates, “Britain was receiving 66% of its imported potash from North America, including some brought from Nova Scotia.”[2]

Some readers of the Connecticut Journal may have been interested in acquiring Walker’s “POT-ASH KITTLES and COOLERS” in order to participate in the industry, but their ultimate goal likely was not merely supplying resources to Britain. Instead, by participating in the production of potash they stood to increase their income and, in turn, gain greater access to the expanding world of consumption. Many advertisements in colonial newspapers promoted assortments of imported textiles, housewares, and other goods. Those advertisements called on colonists to be consumers, but others offered them means of producing the resources that would enable to them to become even more enmeshed in the transatlantic consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.

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[1] William E. Burns, Science and Technology in Colonial America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 25.

[2] Thomas L. Purvis, Colonial America, to 1763 (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 90.

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