What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“POT-ASH, PEARL-ASH, and SALTS.”
Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the many merchants in New England who sought to acquire potash, pearl ash, and salts in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Potash production was a significant industry in the region in the second half of the eighteenth century. Colonists produced pot ash, salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form, by leaching wood ashes and then evaporating the solution in potash kettles, leaving behind a white residue. Potash and related commodities were used in making soap and gunpowder. Starting in the 1760s, according to Carl Bridenbaugh, “potash became a staple commodity of New York and New England.”
For several weeks in the spring of 1770, the Russells inserted an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce “CASH given for Pot-Ash, Pearl-Ash, and Salts,” a familiar refrain that appeared in newspapers published in Boston, New London, Portsmouth, and other towns in New England. In the May 26 edition, their advertisement happened to run next to the “PRICES CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of the going rates for a variety of commodities traded in the town. The prices current included potash at 30 pounds per ton, the more refined pearl ash at 40 pounds per ton, and black salts at 26 pounds per ton. Any readers who heeded the Russells’ call for potash and related commodities could easily determine if the merchants offered a fair price.
Lists of prices current appeared in many colonial newspapers, a regular feature in some but not as frequently in others. Readers could work back and forth between advertisements and the prices current to envision a more complete picture of local commerce. Similarly, they could compare the shipping news, another feature of many colonial newspapers, to advertisements for consumer goods that indicated the ship and captain that delivered the merchandise. The record of vessels arriving and departing port aided in determining how recently merchants and shopkeepers received their wares. Advertisements in colonial newspapers did not necessarily stand alone. Instead, colonists could engage in active reading that took into consideration delivered in both advertisements and other features in newspapers, including the shipping news and lists of prices current.
 Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 105.