What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At his Shop next to the Printing Office.”
Throughout the eighteenth century, most residences and businesses did not have standardized street addresses. City directories as well as trade cards and billheads and other advertising ephemera reveal that some of the largest cities did adopt street numbers in the late 1780s and 1790s, but that practice did not arrive in other cities and towns until the nineteenth century.
Newspaper advertisements featured a variety of means of identifying locations of businesses in eighteenth-century America. Some simply listed the street, as was the case in the advertisement for garden seeds that John Adams placed in the April 13, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Adams indicated that he sold his wares “In Queen Street, Portsmouth.” The port town was small enough that Adams may not have needed to list an address of any sort for residents. However, since the New-Hampshire Gazette was the only newspaper published in the colony and circulated far beyond Portsmouth, Adams may have included his street to aid prospective customers from the countryside who traveled to town or sent orders.
In the same issue, Gillam Butler advertised an assortment of textiles that he sold “At his Shop next to the Printing Office, in the Street that leads from the Parade to the Market and Ferry.” He deployed two strategies for identifying his location. Given that he did not frequently place advertisements, Butler may have thought it necessary to give as much information as possible to aid consumers who wished to visit his shop. He named a landmark and described his location in relation to that landmark: “next to the Printing Office.” He also provided more extensive information about the street. In some cases, advertisers named intersecting streets to help readers get their bearings. In this instance, Butler invoked other aspects of the street by describing other landmarks that it connected: “the Street that leads from the Parade to the Market and Ferry.” He made it possible for prospective customers to imagine a map of his neighborhood to navigate to his shop.
To some extent, we have reverted to eighteenth-century means of thinking about where businesses are located as GPS systems become more advanced. The algorithms that produce directions still rely on standardized street addresses, but users do not need to supply them or even be aware of them. It is now possible to simply enter the name of a business and let the GPS take care of street numbers, landmarks, intersections, and a variety of other data.