What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“As cheap … as he did before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”
According to an advertisement he inserted in the September 14, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal, Peter T. Curtenius sold a vast assortment of merchandise at his shop “At the Sign of the Golden Anvil.” He listed an array of textiles, accessories, and accouterments among “many other Articles in the Dry-Good Way,” but he also stocked housewares, hardware, and even a few books and grocery items. In many ways, his lengthy list of the wares he made available resembled other advertisements emphasizing consumer choice that had been running in American newspapers for the better part of two decades.
Yet Curtenius’s advertisement was also the product of a particular moment. It opened and closed with a nod to the politics of the period. In 1769 New Yorkers, like many other colonists, participated in a nonimportation agreement as an economic protest against the taxes levied on imported paper, tea, glass, and other items by the Townshend Acts. Before he even described his inventory to prospective customers, Curtenius pledged that he set prices “as cheap … as he did before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.” In other words, the shopkeeper did not take advantage of the situation to engage in price gouging. Curtenius suggested that as supply of imported goods dwindled that colonists could expect prices to rise, but he pledged to shield his customers from that aspect of the market. This may not have been solely an altruistic sacrifice on his part if he happened to have surplus goods in stock and welcomed an opportunity to rid himself of merchandise that had been taking too long to sell before the nonimportation agreement went into effect.
Curtenius concluded his advertisement with a list of “Goods made at the New-York Air Furnace,” including pots, kettles, and stoves of various sorts. As an alternative to importing goods from Britain, discontented colonists embraced “domestic manufactures,” goods produced in the colonies. Instead of consuming imported wares, they encouraged the conspicuous consumption of items made locally. The proprietors of the New-York Air Furnace frequently advertised their products, as did shopkeepers like Curtenius who intermixed politics and commerce. Curtenius assured prospective customers of the quality of the items produced at the New-York Air Furnace, asserting that the hammers in particular “have been found on Proof, to be superior to English Hammers.”
At a glance, the format of Curtenius’s advertisement did not look different from others that regularly appeared in the New-York Journal and other newspapers published throughout the colonies. On closer inspection, however, colonists discovered that Curtenius engaged with the politics of the imperial crisis as a means of marketing his merchandise. He promised that he did not inflate his prices while simultaneously offering consumers alternatives to some of the items they previously imported.