What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“This mill was erected principally with a view of encouraging our own manufactures.”
Although advertisements promoting local industry and encouraging “domestic manufactures” most often appeared in newspapers published in New England and the Middle Atlantic in the era of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution, advertisements that made similar appeals also appeared, though less frequently, in newspapers published in the Chesapeake and Lower South. William Rind’s Virginia Gazette ran just such an advertisement as spring turned to summer in 1770. Benjamin Brooks operated a fulling mill, cleansing and dyeing cloth for his customers. He pledged that clients “may depend upon having their cloth finished with the utmost expedition, and in the neatest manner.” Brooks also rehearsed many of the same appeals linking his enterprise to politics and current events that artisans and others incorporated into advertisements in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Brooks proclaimed that his mill “was erected principally with a view of encouraging our own manufactures at this time, when the use of British is utterly destructive of our liberty.” In so doing, he invoked disputes between Parliament and the colonies concerning taxation and regulation of commerce as well as the nonimportation agreements first adopted in response to the Stamp Act and later renewed when the Townshend Acts imposed duties on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea. Colonists vowed to cease importing a vast assortment of goods, not just those enumerated in the Townshend Acts. As an alternative to imported goods, many called for increased production in the colonies while simultaneously asserting that consumers had a duty to purchase those items. When it came to domestic manufactures, production and consumption both constituted acts of resistance. Realizing that some consumers would be skeptical of the quality of goods produced in the colonies, many producers offered reassurances. In addition to stating that his mill finished cloth “in the neatest manner,” Brooks also declared that he and his workers “dye and dress jeans and fustians to look as well as those from England.” Producers and retailers often made such pronouncements to convince prospective customers that they would not be disappointed when they acted on their political principles when making choices about consumption.
Brooks also made a less common observation in his advertisement, one that further mobilized colonists to do their part to support American interests. He noted that “It is impossible to make good work, un less the cloth has been properly managed before it is sent to the mill.” To that end, he inserted directions that “if complied with, will enable me to give … satisfaction to my customers.” The fuller encouraged the production of homespun, but also noted that the quality of his finishing work depended in part on the quality of the untreated cloth delivered to him. He provided a brief primer on spinning and other parts of the process customers undertook on their own before delivering cloth to the mill. If colonists hoped to produce cloth that rivaled English imports, they all had to do their part.
Politics were not confined to the news items and letters published in the Virginia Gazette and other newspapers in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Instead, politics overflowed into other parts of newspapers, inflecting advertisements for consumer goods and services with additional meaning. Brooks did not need to elaborate on what he meant when he stated that “the use of British [manufactures] is utterly destructive of our liberty.” That simple phrase allowed him to connect his fulling mill to a larger project of American industry that required the active support of all who read his advertisement.