What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick.”
Henry Barnes, a merchant, did not meet with success the first time he offered the “Whole of the Real-Estate” he owned in Marlborough for sale in an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury in the summer of 1770. He inserted his advertisement for three consecutive weeks in the issues distributed on July 5, 12, and 19. In it, he described “a Dwelling-House in good Repair, very pleasantly situated, with the Out-Houses” as well as a large store conveniently located and “extremely well-calculated for Business both Wholesale and Retail.” The property also included “a very large Pearl-Ash Work,” a still that could produce five hundred barrels of cider a year, seven acres of land for mowing and pasturing, and “a Number of Asparagus Beds in their prime.” Prospective buyers could anticipate making a living, not just residing, on this property. Yet the “Whole of the Real-Estate of HENRY BARNES” did not sell.
Barnes had an idea why that was the case. Four weeks after his advertisement originally ran in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, he placed it again, but this time with an addition. In a nota bene that concluded the advertisement, Barnes stated, “Whereas some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick: This is to Certify, that I am determined to sell, provided anybody comes up to my Terms which are thought to be very reasonable.” Apparently, Barnes’s advertisement had not gone unnoticed, even though it had not produced the results he intended. Readers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and others in the community became aware of Barnes’s real estate notice, discussed it, and dismissed it. That prompted Barnes to return to the public prints to address the gossip, rumors, and idle talk that the first iteration of his advertisement produced. He ran the advertisement with the addendum on August 16, 23, and 30.
How effective were newspaper advertisements in eighteenth-century America? Answering questions about reception is difficult. Barnes testified to an unintended consequence of placing his advertisement. It did not initially result in a sale of his real estate, but other colonists did notice it and talk about it. They read the notice, even if they did not respond in the manner that Barnes hoped.