What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A great many other articles, suitable for traveling merchants.”
John Watson, a merchant, sold a variety of goods at his store on Cart and Horse Street in New York. In an advertisement in the February 7, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he listed dozens of items ranging from textiles to “Mens and womens shoes” to “Men, women and boys, best silk gloves and mitts” to “Table spoons, and best Holland quills.” This catalog of goods, arranged in two columns, presented consumers an array of choices that Watson hoped would entice them to visit his store and make selections according to their tastes. He also promised that they would encounter an even greater assortment of merchandise, “a great many other articles … too tedious to enumerate.” Many merchants and shopkeepers who emphasized consumer choice with their lengthy litanies of goods doubled down on that appeal by proclaiming that even with as much space as their advertisements occupied in colonial newspapers it still was not enough to do justice to everything in their inventories.
Watson did not address consumers exclusively. He declared that he sold his wares “wholesale or retail,” supplying shopkeepers, peddlers, and others who purchased to sell again as well as working directly with consumers. He noted that he stocked goods “suitable for traveling merchants” to carry to smaller towns and into the countryside. Participating in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century was not a privilege reserved for residents of the largest port cities. Colonists did not need to live in New York and visit Watson’s store in order to purchase the fabrics, ribbons, buttons, snuff boxes, playing cards, and other items he imported and sold. Instead, those who lived at a distance made purchases via the post or at local shops or from peddlers and “traveling merchants” who helped in distributing consumer goods beyond the major ports. Bustling cities like New York, Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia certainly had higher concentrations of shops, affording ready access to consumer goods to local residents, but those places did not have monopolies when it came to the rituals of consumption. Watson, like many other merchants, used newspaper advertising for multiple purposes, seeking to incite demand among local customers while simultaneously distributing goods to retailers and peddlers who made them available to even greater numbers of customers.