What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“The Best accounts of fashions have been sent over by every packet.”
Thomas Charles Willett listed “A Great Variety” of garments, textiles, adornments, and accoutrements in the advertisement he placed in the New-York Journal in February 1770. He stocked everything from “scarlet cloth cloaks” to “Striped Lutestrings” to “French pearl, garnet and jet necklaces and ear rings” to “Italian hair powder.” He concluded his catalog of merchandise with “Bonnets and other fashionable goods.” In his line of business, fashion mattered, especially his ability to convince prospective customers that he was familiar with the latest fashions and would offer appropriate guidance as they made their selections.
To that end, Willett made a special appeal at the conclusion of his advertisement. He informed potential clients that “the best accounts of fashions have been sent over by every packet.” In other words, the vessels that sailed from London and other English ports to New York delivered news of the latest fashions to Willett. He may have maintained correspondence with friend and business associates in London, the cosmopolitan center of the empire, or received magazines with descriptions of the latest tastes. Regardless of his source, Willett had his eye on the other side of the Atlantic … and he expected that prospective customers did as well.
This stood in stark contrast to the political ideology of the period that called for boycotting goods imported from England. In protest of the duties leveled on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea in the Townshend Acts, merchants, shopkeepers, and other signed nonimportation agreements. They pledged not to do business with their counterparts in England until Parliament repealed the duties, just as the Stamp Act had been repealed. That did not prevent Willett and other retailers from selling goods ordered or delivered before the nonimportation pact went into effect, not did it prevent consumers from looking to England when they wished to display their own gentility and cosmopolitanism. Willett stocked a variety of textiles and adornments. How were they to be transformed into garments and combined together to make a statement? As the answer to that question changed, Willett offered assistance from “the best accounts of fashions” he continued to receive. He imported information for his customers to consume even when they collectively declined to import or purchase goods.