What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At his Shop near LIBERTY-TREE, A General Assortment of English Goods.”
A certain tension existed in the opening lines of John Greenlaw’s advertisement in the June 20, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. “JUST Imported in the last Ships from LONDON,” the shopkeeper proclaimed, “And to be Sold by John Greenlaw, At his Shop near LIBERTY-TREE, A General Assortment of English Goods.” Greenlaw used the Liberty Tree as a landmark to direct prospective customers to the location where he sold merchandise that twice in the past six years had been the subject of nonimportation agreements, first in response to the Stamp Act and later to protest duties on certain imported goods imposed by the Townshend Acts. The Liberty Tree served as an enduring reminder of colonists defending their rights against abuses perpetrated by Parliament, while the “General Assortment of English Goods” testified to the extent that consumers valued their ties to British commerce and culture.
While the most recent nonimportation agreement remained in effect, advertisers in Boston frequently promoted goods produced in the colonies or underscored that they acquired their inventory prior to a particular date. In so doing, they associated politics with buying and selling goods, giving their merchandise and their role as purveyors of goods additional layers of meaning for readers and consumers. Such appeals tapered off and mostly disappeared when Parliament repealed most of the duties and merchants and shopkeepers eagerly resumed trade. “JUST Imported” became a standard part of advertisements once again as fewer and fewer advertisers incorporated politics into their notices. Greenlaw and a few others, however, continued giving directions that included the Liberty Tree. Whether they intended to make political statements or merely chose a convenient landmark, they reminded readers of a complicated relationship with the mother country, one made all the more fraught by the quartering of troops in the city and the Boston Massacre. Participating in the marketplace, such advertisements asserted, was part of larger web of interactions between the colonies and Britain.