What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JOSEPH AND Wm. RUSSELL.”
Joseph Russell and William Russell were among Providence’s mercantile elite in the decade prior to the American Revolution. They conducted business at a shop marked by the Sign of the Golden Eagle, a device that became inextricably associated with the Russells. Their name and the sign were interchangeable in advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette. Sometimes their notices included their names and the sign, sometimes just their names, and sometimes just the sign. When advertisements included just their names, readers knew that they could find the Russells at the Sign of the Golden Eagle. When advertisements directed readers to the Sign of the Golden Eagle, they knew that they would be dealing with the Russells. No matter which configuration appeared in their advertisements, the Russells’ use of the public prints to promote their various enterprises enhanced and contributed to their visibility as prominent merchants.
They achieved that visibility with a variety of novel approaches to advertising, including full-page advertisements and multiple advertisements in a single issue. In November 1766, they published what may have been the first full-page advertisement for consumer goods in an American newspaper. (This excludes book catalogs that printer-booksellers inserted into their own newspapers, taking advantage of their access to the press.) In addition, placing multiple advertisements per issue helped keep their names in the public eye, a strategy adopted by a small number of advertisers in the largest port cities. Consider the July 28, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette. It featured fourteen paid notices and a short advertisement for blanks inserted by the printer. Of those fourteen advertisements, the Russells placed two, one on each page that had advertisements. One of them presented various commodities for sale, while the other offered cash in exchange for potash and salts. The Russells certainly were not the only American entrepreneurs to use the strategy of drawing readers’ attention to their names multiple times in a single issue of a newspaper, but they were the only ones who did so regularly in the Providence Gazette, a publication that tended to run fewer advertisements than its counterparts in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. As a result, their advertisements were all the more noticeable because they competed with fewer others for attention.