What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Whole of which were imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”
William Greenleaf’s advertisement in the November 9, 1769, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter looked much like others that promoted consumer goods. Extending half a column, it listed a vast assortment of items available at his shop, everything from “Silk & worsted Sagathies” to “Ivory, Bone, & Ebony Fans” to “Necklaces and Earings of various sorts” to Persia Carpets three yards square.” In addition to its celebration of consumer culture and encouragement for colonists to acquire more goods, Greenleaf’s advertisement also addressed the politics of the day. The shopkeeper assured the entire community that his entire inventory had been “imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.” In so doing, he protected his reputation and signaled to prospective customers that they could buy his wares without compromising their political principles.
When it came to advertising textiles and accessories, the bulk of Greenleaf’s merchandise, most merchants and shopkeepers emphasized how recently their goods had arrived in the colonies. “Just Imported” implied that these items represented the latest fashions from London and other English cities. In 1769, however, this popular appeal no longer possessed its usual power to entice prospective customers. New merchandise was politically problematic merchandise. The merchants and traders of Boston and other towns in Massachusetts adopted nonimportation agreements to protest the duties Parliament imposed on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea. If Parliament intended to tax those items, then colonists resolved not to import an even greater array of goods from Britain. The goods that merchants and shopkeepers stocked and sold possessed political significance based on when those items arrived in the colonies.
In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists observed the commercial practices of their friends, neighbors, and other members of their communities. Greenleaf realized that all merchants and shopkeepers were under scrutiny to detect if they violated the nonimportation agreement. Committees investigated suspected violations and published names and accounts of their actions in newspapers, alerting consumers not to do business with them and warning others to abide by the agreement. In such an environment, Greenleaf considered it imperative to assert that he sold merchandise that did not breach the nonimportation agreement. In his business practices, he expressed a commitment to the patriot cause.