What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“PURDIE and DIXON have imported a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper.”
Like many other colonial printers, Alexander Purdie and John Dixon took advantage of their access to the press to insert advertisements for goods and services they provided in the newspaper they published. Such was the case in the September 5, 1771, edition of the Virginia Gazette. Interspersed among the paid notices, the printers included their own advertisement for a vast array of imported goods.
Purdie and Dixon deployed a standard list format, creating a dense block of text. Within their advertisement, however, they did organize their merchandise according to three main categories: stationery wares, music, and patent medicines. Many printers created additional revenue streams by selling books, stationery, and writing equipment. Purdie and Dixon stocked “a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper, fine large Dutch and Hudson Bay Quills, fine Japan Ink, shining Sand, red and black Dutch Sealing Wax,” and a variety of other items to equip any desk for business or correspondence. They also carried several pieces of music, including “Midas, the Padlock, and Love in a Village, for the Harpsicord, Voice, German Flute, Violin, or Guitar” and “eight Italian Sonatas for two Violins or Flutes, with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord, by several eminent Composers.” The printers had on hand both popular and genteel selections to suit the tastes of their customers. Furthermore, most printers and booksellers who included music among their titles did not indicate such an extensive selection. Purdie and Dixon concluded by enumerating a dozen patent medicines, including many of the most common ones marketed from New England to Georgia. “Bateman’s Pectoral Drops; Stoughton’s Squire’s, and Daffy’s Elixirs; [and] Turlington’s Balsam” required no further explanation because they were so familiar to consumers. That may have been one of the reasons that printers frequently supplemented their stock of books and stationery with patent medicines, even if they did not sell other sorts of consumer goods.
Purdie and Dixon’s printing office “at the POST OFFICE” in Williamsburg was a hub for collecting and disseminating information, but it was also a place to go shopping. They made available a variety of equipment for writing, all kinds of sheet music for entertainment, and an assortment of patent medicines for customers to treat illnesses and chronic conditions. In addition to the fees they generated for subscriptions, advertising, and job printing, Purdie and Dixon also generated revenues from selling items from select categories of imported goods.