What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Sundry Books, on Painting, and a Number Prints being sent him.”
Colonists placed newspaper advertisements for a variety of purposes. Some aimed to incite demand for consumer goods and services. Others published legal notices or called on customers to settle accounts. Enslavers offered Africans and African Americans for sale or offered rewards for the capture and return of Black people who liberated themselves by running away. Aggrieved husbands warned against extending credit to recalcitrant wives. Clubs informed members of upcoming meetings. A good number of advertisements concerned lost or stray livestock. Colonists also inserted other sorts of lost-and-found notices.
When a shipment of “sundry Books, on Painting, and a Number of Prints” from England got misdirected in the summer of 1771, Charles Willson Peale ran an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette, hoping that “Any Gentleman” among the readers who had come into possession of his books and prints would forward them to him or inform him so he could make arrangements to collect them. He promised that anyone who helped him acquire the missing items “shall be well rewarded for his Trouble.” Peale had “received Letters” alerting him about the books and prints “being sent him, but by what Ship, or to what Part of Virginia or Maryland they were sent, he is totally at a Loss to find out.” When he placed the advertisement, Peale was simultaneously frustrated and hopeful.
At the time, Peale had already gained some renown as a painter having studied under John Singleton Copley in the colonies and, for three years, under Benjamin West in England. He eventually became one of the most influential American painters of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, known especially for his portraits of prominent leaders now remembered as founders of the nation. A naturalist and inventor in addition to an artist, Peale established one of the first American museums. He often harnessed these endeavors to promoting the new nation. Today, historians and other scholars recognize and continue to examine his contributions to early American politics and culture.
That distinguishes Peale from most of the other colonists who placed advertisements or who were the subjects of advertisements in the Maryland Gazette. For good reason, the name “CHARLES W. PEALE” at the end of his advertisement draws the attention of modern readers familiar with the era of the American Revolution. Yet that advertisement by a notable historical figure tells only one story among the many significant narratives contained within advertisements that ran in the same issue, a story in many ways less important than others despite the famous name attached to it. William Rooke’s advertisement for “a great Variety of GOODS,” for instance, testifies to the consumer revolution that played an important role in colonists participating in politics through their decisions in the marketplace. Thomas Gassaway Howard’s advertisement offering a reward for the capture and return of “a Negro Man named Harry” demonstrates the tension between liberty and enslavement present at the founding of the nation. Colonists of all sorts, elites and the lower sorts, enslaved and free, made history in the eighteenth century. In the twenty-first century, we have a duty to examine their many different stories and incorporate their diverse experiences and perspectives into a more complete narrative of the past.