What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“To particularize every Article would near fill up the whole Paper.”
To demonstrate the extent of choices available to consumers, advertisers often included lengthy lists of merchandise in their newspaper notices. Joshua Gardner did so in an advertisement in the June 24, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. In a paragraph of dense text, he named dozens of items, including “Queens black silk mitts, Queens white silk mitts, black, white and cloth coloured silk mitts and gloves close wove, [and] worsted gloves and mitts.” He stocked a similar variety of stockings, ribbons, textiles, and other “English Goods.” Henry Leddle deployed the same strategy, cataloging an even more extensive inventory in an advertisement divided into two columns.
Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, took a different approach. He identified a few items from among his “ELEGANT Assortment of English, India and other Piece Goods suitable for all Seasons.” He also carried housewares, cutlery, and hardware, but did not elaborate on which items. Instead, he declared that “To particularize every Article would near fill up the whole Paper, and be very Tedious to the Public, therefore it may suffice that he has almost every Article that can be asked for.” Prospective customers likely did not consider it hyperbole to suggest that a complete accounting of Deblois’s wares would indeed fill all four pages of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. After all, they regularly encountered advertisements that extended more than a column and still grouped similar items together as “an assortment” or “a variety” without enumerating each separately. Asking readers to imagine an entire issue of the newspaper devoted to nothing but a list of Deblois’s merchandise prompted them to consider just how many items he carried at his shop. By comparison, the lists in the advertisements placed by Gardner, Leddle, and others seemed short. Deblois aimed for some of the benefits of such a lengthy advertisement without the expense. At the same time, he hedged his bets, stating that he had “almost every Article.” Once prospective customers visited his shop, he could suggest alternatives to anything he did not have in stock.
Many eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers competed with each other when it came to the length of their newspaper notices. Longer notices listed more goods, demonstrating choices available to consumers. On occasion, some advertisers offered commentary on that method, seeking to distinguish themselves by simultaneously critiquing that marketing strategy while also maintaining that they provided the same array of choices for customers. Deblois spared readers a “very tedious” list, but still promised as many choices as his competitors.