What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
In the late colonial period, most advertisers did not prompt prospective customers to think of their merchandise in association with Christmas gifts. In the late 1760s, bookseller and stationer Garrat Noel of New York did place advertisements in which he listed books that he considered “proper for Christmas Presents and New-Year’s Gifts,” though he was usually alone in his efforts to establish a connection between those holidays and consumption in the public prints. The appropriately-named Noel addressed “those who are willing to be generous on the Occasion.” He encouraged that generosity by charging “extraordinary low Prices” for items he envisioned as gifts. He ran what has become familiar as a holiday sale long before other retailers adopted the custom. In the late 1760s, Noel was often the only advertiser from New England to Georgia who made an explicit connection between Christmas and giving gifts.
Although Noel placed newspaper advertisements in December 1770, he did not mention Christmas or encourage giving the books he sold as gifts. One of his competitors, however, seized the opportunity to market “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” in the December 27 edition of the New-York Journal. James Rivington was best known as a bookseller, but, like many others in his occupation, he stocked a variety of other merchandise as well. He published an extensive list of items “which may be thought proper Presents to and from Ladies and Gentlemen at this Season, when the Heart is more peculiarly enlarged.” He offered everything from “NECKLACES, ear-rings, and hair pins” to “Beautiful polished leather snuff boxes” to “Siler plated tea urns” to “Dress swords and belts of all kinds.” For some items, Rivington made appeals to sentimentality, such as “Lockets for the custody of the dear creature’s hair.” He also advised prospective customers that he stocked items at various prices to fit their budgets. For instance, he charged “from six shillings to £10” for tooth pick cases and snuff boxes” and “from 7 shillings to seven dollars” for lockets. Rivington concluded his advertisement with a promise that he also carried “a myriad of other articles,” suggesting to consumers that they could find just the right “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” when they visited his shop facing the Coffee-House Bridge.
The Christmas and New Year holidays did not animate a season of advertising associated with purchasing and exchanging gifts in the late colonial period. Such marketing strategies were largely absent, but not completely unknown. A small number of retailers experimented with making explicit connections between their merchandise and celebrating the holidays. In the process, they emphasized prices that facilitated generosity. They also encouraged sentimentality among consumers. Although subdued by today’s standards, their efforts to market the holidays could be seen as precursors to more extensive advertising campaigns in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.