What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AMERICAN PAPER HANGINGS, MANUFACTURED in Philadelphia.”
Like many other advertisers, Plunket Fleeson, an upholsterer, launched a “Buy American” campaign in the late 1760s. With increasing frequency, advertisers encouraged their fellow colonists to practice politics in the marketplace as the imperial crisis intensified. The Townshend Act imposed duties on certain imported goods, including glass, lead, paint, tea, and paper. In response, merchants and shopkeepers subscribed to nonimportation agreements, seeking to exert economic pressure on British merchants and suppliers to intervene on their behalf with Parliament. At the same time that nonimportation agreements went into effect, many colonists advocated for “domestic manufactures” as alternatives to imported goods; buying items made in the colonies simultaneously helped to correct a trade imbalance, employed local workers, and made a political statement.
Fleeson joined the chorus of advertisers who encouraged consumers to consider the political ramifications of the purchases they made. In an advertisement in the October 19, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he promoted “AMERICAN PAPER HANGINGS, MANUFACTURED in Philadelphia.” His paper hangings (or wallpaper) rivaled the products that came from England. He described them as “not inferior to those generally imported, and as low in price.” Although many advertisers made similar arguments about their wares and expected prospective customers to make the right connections to current events on their own, Fleeson explicitly spelled out the stakes for readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette. “[A]s there is a considerable duty imposed on paper hangings imported her,” he explained, “it cannot be doubted, but that every one among us, who wishes prosperity to America, will give a preference to our own manufacturers.” Doing so did not have to be a sacrifice. Fleeson underscored that his paper hangings were “equally good and cheap” compared to imported paper hangings. Purchasing them did not put consumers at a disadvantage. They did not pay more, nor did they acquire inferior merchandise. That being the case, there was no reason not to “give a preference to our own manufacture” and aid the American cause in doing so.
Fleeson also listed a variety of other goods available at his upholstery shop, but devoted half of his advertisement to making a political argument about the meaning associated with the “AMERICAN PAPER HANGINGS” he sold at his shop on Chestnut Street. He was one of many advertisers in the late 1760s and early 1770s who aimed to convince prospective customers that their decisions about consumer goods were imbued with political significance.
For a case study on advertisements for paper hangings in the 1760s through the 1780s, see Carl Robert Keyes, “A Revolution in Advertising: ‘Buy American’ Campaigns in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in Creating Advertising Culture: Beginnings to the 1930s, vol. 1, We Are What We Sell: How Advertising Shapes American Life … And Always Has, ed. Danielle Sarver Coombs and Bob Batchelor (Praeger, 2014), 1-25.