What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JOHN MASON, Upholsterer, PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customers that he has removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house.”
As the imperial crisis intensified in the late 1760s, newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services increasingly incorporated political messages intended to sway prospective customers. Many such advertisements underscored the benefits of encouraging “domestic manufactures” to achieve greater self-sufficiency and the virtues of purchasing those locally produced goods. Those advertisements often connected their “Buy American” appeals to faithful adherence to nonimportation agreements adopted to resist Parliament’s attempts to enact new taxes, first via the Stamp Act and later through imposing duties on certain imported goods via the Townshend Acts.
Such advertisements became a genre that deployed similar language and took similar forms. In his attempt to sell mattresses and market his services as an upholsterer, John Mason took an even bolder approach. Like other purveyors of goods and services, he turned to the public prints to inform prospective customers when he moved locations. The language he used, however, had distinct political overtones that certainly resonated with debates taking place in newspapers as well as in taverns, coffeehouses, and the public square. Mason trumpeted that he “PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customer that he removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house … where he carries on the Upholstery Business.” The word “PRAYS” appeared in capitals because it was the first word in the body of the advertisement. “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY,” however, apparently appeared in capitals because Mason specified that they needed appropriate emphasis. The upholsterer invoked two of the most important concepts animating resistance to Parliament.
Readers could hardly have missed the point when they considered “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” in combination with the nota bene that Mason appended to his advertisement. “No WONDER that Liberty is the Common Cry,” Mason lectured, “for if it was not the inanimate creation would cry out against us, for the very flowers, they, when deprived of their Liberty, Choose Death Rather, than be Confined in the softest bosom.—Methinks a Moment’s Reflections would Convince those that would Deprive us of our Liberty and property that they are Doing WRONG – for if our Fathers have No Right to Deprive us of our Liberty and property after Twenty-one Years, Certainly out Mother* can have No Right after we have enjoyed it near an Hundred Years. *Mother Country.” In this sermon on liberty, Mason looked to the history of the colonies for guidance and precedents. Parliament could not suddenly impose regulations the colonies after more than a century of allowing them to govern themselves through their own colonial assemblies. Furthermore, the stark choice between liberty and death so was evident that it could be witnessed even in the natural world, as Mason attested in his example of flowers that dies when held too closely, even in the most loving embrace.
At a time when many purveyors of consumer goods and services crafted advertisements that either implicitly or softly invoked politics to influence prospective customers, Mason made a full-throated declaration of his political sentiments. Inserting this editorial into his advertisement allowed him to demonstrate his politics to customers. In addition to adding his voice to the discourse unfolding in the public prints, Mason also intended to encourage customers to support his business because they agreed with his politics and admired his bold stance.