What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“It is impossible to carry on Business without Money.”
Printers, like members of other occupations, frequently extended credit to their customers in early America. Indeed, the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century depended on extensive networks of credit on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, colonial newspapers carried notices calling on consumers to settle accounts nearly often as advertisements hawking goods and services. Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, profited from both sorts of advertisements … provided that his customers paid their bills. He sometimes found himself in the position of placing his own notices “earnestly request[ing] all his good Friends and Customers to pay off their Accounts.”
Such was the case at the end of April 1770. He declared it “impossible to carry on Business without Money.” Wells offered generous terms to his “Friends and Customers,” asking them to catch up only “to the End of last Year.” He did not call on them to pay any charges incurred in the past five months, nor did he threaten legal action. Most similar advertisement concluded with such warning, some of them more polite than others. Wells also challenged his customers to compare what they owed him to the magnitude of credit he extended to all of his customers. Their “Accounts separately amount only to small Sums,” he declared, while implicitly suggesting that those small sums represented a much larger total when considered together. Wells pleaded with customers not to dismiss the impact of settling accounts just because they considered what they owed so trifling as to not matter. The printer issued a special appeal to “Ladies and Gentlemen in the Country” to pay for their “Gazettes, Advertisements, and other Articles,” advising that they could have “their Factors or other Friends in Town” settle accounts on their behalf. Rather than overlook his entreaty because they lived at a distance, Wells offered a solution. What they owed made it just as “impossible to carry on Business” as what those who resided in Charleston owed.
Like other printers, Wells frequently placed notices in his own newspaper. Usually he advertised books and stationery, but on occasion he placed another sort of notice. He could not continue to publish the South-Carolina and American General Gazette if “Friends and Customers” did not settle accounts. More than any advertisements placed by merchants, shopkeepers, or others calling on customers to pay what they owed, Wells stood to generate the most revenue from this particular advertisement, provided that his customers heeded it and submitted payment.