What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THIS Country manufactured Felt Hats.”
As the end of August approached in 1771, Abiezer Smith placed an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to promote hats he made and sold at his shop in Norwich, Connecticut. He assured prospective customers that he parted with his hats “as cheap as can be bought in the Colony” for items of similar quality. In addition, he promised that his hats were “made in the best Manner.” He also suggested that colonists should acquire “this Country manufactured Felt Hats,” a phrase that appeared twice in his notice, rather than the imported alternatives that many shopkeepers kept in stock.
Indeed, Smith devoted nearly half of his advertisement to encouraging retailers and consumers to support local artisans rather than choosing hats made in England. “If Persons would but duly and properly consider the difference there really is between this County manufactured Felt Hats and those Imported from Great-Britain,” he declared, “they would doubtless conclude that they are much cheaper for the Customer than those that are Imported.” Yet this was not merely a matter of cost. He continued by asserting that “certainly there is in this Colony a sufficiency of Hatters to supply it’s Inhabitants with Hats.” Smith spoke on behalf of all hatters in Connecticut. Rather than consider other hatters in the colony to be competitors, he made common cause with them in cultivating a market for hats produced locally. That market depended not only on the selections ultimately made by consumers but also the choices that merchants and shopkeepers made when it came to acquiring and distributing inventory.
Smith limited his arguments in favor of domestic manufactures to price, quality, and supporting the livelihoods of colonists rather than hatters on the other side of the Atlantic. He did not make explicitly political arguments against Parliament or Great Britain, but within the past decade colonial consumers witnessed (and many supported) nonimportation agreements enacted by merchants in response to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts. While those nonimportation agreements had expired at the time Smith placed his advertisement in the New-London Gazette, both merchants and consumers would have been familiar with that context for favoring “this Country manufactured Felt Hats” as well. Smith allowed potential customers to draw their own conclusions about the politics of purchasing his hats, likely well aware that his advertisement echoed others that much more explicitly linked domestic manufactures and the imperial crisis in the recent past.