What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“All cheap for Cash, or West-India Produce.”
When John Fitton advertised several commodities in the Providence Gazette in the late spring and early summer of 1769 he did not specify any prices. In that regard, his advertisement did not differ from most others placed by merchants and shopkeepers in Providence and throughout the colonies. Purveyors of goods rarely listed prices in the eighteenth century, though they commonly made appeals to low prices to stimulate demand among potential customers. Fitton pledged to sell his wares “cheap for Cash” or barter for “West-India Produce.” He did not, however, reveal how much he charged for flour, pork, or peas. In a similar advertisement, Thomas Stelle advertised flour, ship bread, and bar iron without mentioning prices.
Readers gained a sense of how much they could expect to pay for most of those commodities from another portion of the newspaper. In the June 24 edition of the Providence Gazette, the compositor happened to position Fitton’s advertisement immediately above the “PRICE CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of prevailing prices for popular commodities in the local market. Although the price current did not include peas, it did indicate that pork sold at 66 shilling per barrel and flour at 16 shillings and 6 pence “By the Hundred Weight.” Before they finalized any transactions with Fitton, customers could consult the price current to determine if his prices actually qualified as “cheap” compared to what competitors charged. In turn, Fitton could also take advantage of the price current list, using it to set his own prices to offer bargains or to calculate the value of commodities that prospective clients offered in exchange for his flour, pork, and peas.
The price current list provided an overview of the marketplace in Providence. It aided merchants in making decisions about when and where to buy, sell, and trade commodities, but it was also an important resource for consumers as they determined whether merchants, shopkeepers, and other purveyors of goods set fair prices. Just as readers could sometimes work back and forth between advertisements for consumer goods and the shipping news from the customs house to assess how recently merchandise had arrived in shops and stores, they could also consult another feature in the newspaper – the price current list – for additional information before making purchases.