What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A fine ASSORTMENT of ENGLISH GOODS … with a great Variety of other Articles, too tedious to mention.”
Colonial merchants and shopkeepers in towns small and large emphasized consumer choice in their newspaper advertisements. Prospective customers, they suggested, did not have to settle for goods that did not satisfy their needs, tastes, or budgets. Instead, they could choose among a broad array of merchandise, many items cataloged in advertisements of varying lengths.
Consider the advertisements for consumer goods in the May 31, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Even the shortest ones incorporated the word “assortment” or “variety.” George Frost, for instance, informed readers that he stocked “a fresh Assortment of English and West India Goods.” Similarly, James King hawked “A Variety of Hatters Trimings,” Moses Frazier carried “A Large and compleat Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS,” and John Sparhawk sold “a compleat Assortment of PAPER, London Parchment, and other Stationary.” William Appleton worked “assortment” and “variety” into his brief advertisement, promoting “A great Variety of Books, Paper, Stationary, Jewellery, Plate, Silver Watches, together with a large Assortment of Shoe Buckles of every Kind.”
Other advertisers demonstrated the choices available at their shops and stores with extensive litanies of good that still did not manage to capture their entire inventory. Hugh Henderson advertised “A fine ASSORTMENT of ENGLISH GOODS,” listed dozens of items from textiles to accessories to housewares, and promised “a great Variety of other Articles, too tedious to mention.” Thomas Achincloss took the same approach with his “Neat Assortment of Goods,” enumerating dozens of textiles and accessories before declaring he had on hand “many other Articles, too tedious for an Advertisement.” Joseph started and ended his advertisement with invocations of consumer choice. He stocked “A large Assortment of 3-4 & Yard-wide Irish Linens” and other textiles and “a large Assortment of Cream color’d China and Glass Ware.”
Stephen Hardy did not suggest the same range of choices when it came to the textiles available at his shop, but he did state that he sold “a good assortment of buttons, bindings, and other trimmings for Taylors.” Advertisers, however, did not universally deploy the words “assortment” and “variety.” Thomas Martin placed the longest advertisement in the issue. Extending three-quarters of a column, it listed many sorts of textiles, housewares, and hardware. That list included “hinges and files of various sorts” among the hardware, but did not attach that description to any other merchandise. Instead, he allowed the lengthy list of goods to speak for itself in terms of the choices available to consumers.
None of these advertisements merely announced goods for sale. Each promised prospective customers choices among the inventory in any shop or store. Collectively, they also suggested the option of comparing the goods offered in one shop to those at another, further enhancing the ability of consumers to make decisions for themselves about what to purchase.