What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“At the sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister.”
In late 1769 or early 1770, Robert Levers opened a shop on Second Street in Philadelphia. There he sold “a large and general assortment of GROCERY GOODS,” many of which he listed in an advertisement in the January 4, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. His inventory included “raisins and currants, figs, pepper and ginger, alspice, nutmegs, cloves, mace, cinnamon, [and] rice.” He also stocked Portuguese wines, French brandy, rum distilled in the colonies, and other spirits.
Yet those were not the items that received top billing Levers’s advertisement. His list commenced with “HYSON green and bohea teas, loaf and lump sugar, muscovado sugars, by the barrel or pound, [and] coffee and chocolate.” Levers likely chose to place those items first because they were so popular with consumers, but they also happened to correspond to the wares depicted in his shop sign. Before making his pitch – an appeal to consumer choice, an appeal to price, a catalog of goods to demonstrate consumer choice, a statement of appreciation to former customers, an appeal to quality, and another appeal to price – Levers first informed readers that he was located at “the sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister.” That sign conjured an evocative image of some of the most popular commodities in Philadelphia and throughout the colonies.
Like most signs that marked eighteenth-century shops, Levers’s sign no longer exists except in newspaper advertisements. Those advertisements constitute a partial catalog of the iconography deployed to mark retail shops, taverns, and artisans’ workshops. They also hint at the visual landscape colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of cities and towns. The “sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister” helped Levers direct customers to his shop in an era before standardized street numbers. It suggested to passersby what kind of merchandise they could expect to find within the shop. It also aided colonists in navigating the streets of the bustling port city. One need not have any business with Levers to use his shop sign as a landmark in giving or following directions.
Levers noted that he had “lately opened shop.” His newspaper advertisement helped achieve visibility for his new enterprise, but so did his shop sign. He did not limit his marketing efforts to the public prints. Instead, his sign served as a visual invitation for colonists to visit and remember his shop.