What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just Imported in the Schooner Liberty.”
John Prince placed a short advertisement for “A Quantity of the best JAMAICA SUGARS, by the Hogshead, Barrel, or less Quantity” in the May 9, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. He announced that had “just Imported” his wares “in the Schooner Liberty.” The shipping news, printed in the same column, verified that aspect of Prince’s notice. The “Schooner Liberty, J. Lambert,” captain, arriving from Jamaica was the first entry among the vessels on the list of “INWARD ENTRIES” from the “CUSTOM-HOUSE, Port of SALEM & MARBLEHEAD, May 8.” Nine other ships had also entered the port in the past week. For its first appearance in the Essex Gazette, Prince’s advertisement benefited from its proximity to the shipping news.
“Just imported” was a stock phrase deployed frequently in eighteenth-century advertisements. In many instances, readers may have overlooked claims by merchants, shopkeepers, and others claiming to have “just imported” their merchandise, realizing that they used the phrase rather flexibly to suit their own purposes. In addition, some advertisements ran for weeks or even months without any revisions to the copy; the phrase “just imported” took on a different inflection each time it was repeated in a subsequent insertion of an advertisement originally submitted to the printing office some time earlier.
In the case of Prince’s advertisement, “just Imported” aligned quite literally with the shipping news from May 8 published in the May 9 edition of the Essex Gazette. In the next two issues, May 16 and 23, the phrase operated independently of any other content in the newspaper. Some readers may have been aware that the Liberty was still in port, drawing on their own knowledge to assess what counted as “just Imported.” When Prince’s advertisement ran once again in the May 30 edition, the shipping news listed only one vessel “OUTWARD BOUND,” the “Schooner Liberty” making ready to depart for the West Indies. Prince’s advertisement did not appear in the Essex Gazette again after that. He discontinued it while the phrase “just Imported” applied to a vessel still in port, but that certainly was not the case for every advertiser who adopted such language. Given the elasticity of the meaning of “just imported,” shrewd readers likely discounted the phrase unless they had other means of assessing its accuracy, such as the shipping news.