What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD BY Harbottle Dorr …”
Harbottle Dorr is not a household name today, but Dorr remains well known among historians of early America, especially those who study either the role of the press in the American Revolution or the participation of ordinary people in efforts to resist the various abuses perpetrated by Parliament.
Dorr placed an advertisement for nails and “a good Assortment of Braziery, Ironmongery and Pewter Ware” in the supplement that accompanied the November 20, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. At the time, Dorr, a merchant and a member of the Sons of Liberty was doing far more than just advertising in the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers. He was also collecting, annotating, and indexing them as a means of constructing his own narrative of the imperial crisis. As the Massachusetts Historical Society notes in its online collection of those newspapers, Dorr sought “to form a political history.” (Visit The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. to explore the newspapers and indexes that Dorr arranged into four volumes.) “Dorr was well-versed in the heated politics of the day,” the Massachusetts Historical Society continues, “and he annotated many newspaper pages with his opinions, cross-references to articles elsewhere in his collection, and sometimes noted the identity of anonymous contributors to the newspapers.” His index filled 133 pages and included 4,969 terms.
Dorr’s index included advertisements, including this entry: “Advertisement of H.D., about discouraging the Importers &c.” That entry referenced an advertisement that Dorr placed in the Boston Evening-Post on September 3, 1770. Much more extensive than the brief notice that ran nearly nine months earlier in the Boston-Gazette, it offered political commentary that encouraged consumers to encourage production of goods in the colonies by choosing them over imported alternatives. “It is presumed,” Dorr declared, “preference will be given to NAILS manufactured here, (not only on patriotic Principles, and to discourage the PRESENT Importers,— but) as they really are better in Quality than most English Nails, being far tougher.”
In chronicling the advertising landscape in colonial America in 1769, I have frequently chosen advertisements that implicitly or explicitly commented on the Townshend Acts and the nonimportation agreements adopted in Boston and other cities and towns. I have argued that both advertisers and readers looked beyond news items and editorials when considering the politics of the period. In his annotations and index, Dorr confirms that he did indeed view advertisements for consumer goods as a political tool, not just a means of marketing his wares. His “political history” of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution included advertisers and the messages they communicated to colonial consumers.