What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TEA, that was imported before the Agreement of Non-importation.”
On November 17, 1769, Herman Brimmer inserted an advertisement for “Two or three Chests of BOHEA TEA, that was imported before the Agreement of Non-importation took place” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. Without enough space to include the advertisement in the standard four-page issue for that week, Richard Draper, the printer, placed Brimmer’s advertisement on the first page of a two-page extraordinary edition that accompanied the regular issue.
Brimmer made a point to advise prospective customers and the entire community that he sold tea that did not violate the resolutions adopted by “the Merchants and Traders in the Town of Boston” more than a year earlier on August 1, 1768. It was just as well that he did so for his advertisement appeared immediately to the right of news about the nonimportation pact. Boston’s merchants and traders had recently updated their agreement on October 17, asserting that they “will not import any Kind of Goods or Merchandize from Great-Britain … until the Acts imposing Duties in America for raising a Revenue be totally repealed.” The third of the new resolutions explicitly mentioned tea: “we will not import … or purchase of any who may import from any other Colony in America, any Tea, Paper, Glass, or any other Goods commonly imported from Great Britain, until the Revenue Acts are totally repealed.” To give more teeth to these resolutions, those attending “a Meeting of the Merchants” just ten days earlier “VOTED, That the Names of all Such Persons as may hereafter import any Goods from Great-Britain contrary to the Agreement … be inserted in the News-Papers, and that they be held up to the Public as Persons counteracting the salutary Measures the Merchants are pursuing for the obtaining the Redress of their Grievances.” The merchants who devised the nonimportation agreement meant business!
Brimmer’s advertisement for “BOHEA TEA” did not merely promote a popular product. It was part of a larger public discourse about the meanings of goods, in this case not just the cultural meanings associated with drinking tea but also the political meanings of purchasing tea during a time of crisis. Other advertisers in the late 1760s underscored that they did not violate the nonimportation agreements, but their advertisements in colonial newspapers rarely appeared immediately next to copies of those agreements. That made neither advertisers nor readers any less cognizant of the fact that news items and advertisements operated in conversation with each other. Elsewhere in the same issue, William Greenleaf assured readers that he imported his merchandise “before the Non-importation Agreement took Place” and Henry Bass called on colonists to purchase grindstone manufactured in the colonies. They participated in the same conversation about using commerce as a means of resistance to the Townshend Acts and, in doing so, preserving “Liberties and Privileges” for themselves and posterity. That the nonimportation resolutions and Brimmer’s advertisement ran next to each other provides stark visual evidence of that conversation that took place in advertisements throughout the newspaper.