What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Bengalls, Chints, striped Ginghams, and red & white striped Holland.”
Samuel Cottman advertised “a Variety of English Goods” in the June 13, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. To whet prospective customers’ appetite, he listed some of the items available at his shop, though his litany of goods was nowhere near as extensive as what appeared in George Deblois’s advertisement on the same page. That advertisement extended half a column, while Cottman’s filled a single square of text (the standard unit for purchasing advertising space in eighteenth-century newspapers). Still, Cottman named about a dozen kinds of textiles that customers would find among his merchandise. In the process, he engaged readers in a conversation about consumer culture that relied on specialized knowledge of the goods presented for their consideration.
Cottman offered several fabrics that customers could use to make “Men’s Waistcoats,” including “Bengalls,” “Chints,” “Ginghams,” and “Holland.” He also supplied “Gauze” for aprons and “Persians” for other uses. While some of these patterns remain familiar in the twenty-first century, most are not as widely recognized as they were in the eighteenth century … and they were certainly recognized by average readers and consumers. Cottman, Deblois, and others who advertised in the Essex Gazette and other newspapers throughout the colonies knew that their fellow customers spoke the language of consumer culture, especially when it came to textiles. They knew that prospective customers could distinguish among the several fabrics listed in Cottman’s advertisement as well as nearly a dozen others that Deblois included in his lengthier notice. Even if they could not afford certain fabrics or declined to purchase them because the patterns did not suit their tastes, readers knew the differences among the options presented to them and could easily envision them.
By modern standards, Cottman’s advertisement seems dull. It looks like a dense block of text that would have incited little interest in the goods he attempted to sell. Yet it must be considered according to how readers in the eighteenth-century would have read it. Few advertisements included any sort of visual images. Those that did usually did not feature depictions of the particular merchandise offered for sale; instead, crude woodcuts replicated shop signs or showed generic representations of commonly purchased items. No newspaper advertisement provided color images of fabrics or other goods. Instead, advertisers relied on the imaginations of readers. They deployed the expansive language of consumer culture as a means of invoking images that printing technologies of the time allowed them to deliver only through text. Eighteenth-century readers, well versed in the language of consumption, would have derived far more from Cottman’s advertisement than just the words on the page. It would have evoked vivid images of the many sorts of fabrics in his inventory.