What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“In your Gazette of the 26th Ultimo, I observe and Advertisement signed by Alexander Wodrow.”
Colonizers placed newspaper advertisements to serve a variety of purposes. They hawked consumer goods and services. They described enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away and offered rewards for their capture and return. They called on debtors and creditors to settle accounts with the executors of estates. They offered real estate for sale. They notified readers about stray livestock to claim.
Some colonizers used advertisements to pursue feuds with others or to defend their reputations to the public. Such was the case with notices placed by Alexander Wodrow and William Love, both of Falmouth, in Alexander Purdie and John Dixon’s Virginia Gazette in November and December 1772. It began with a “letter” addressed to the printers but placed among the paid notices in the November 26 edition. Wodrow asked the printers “to acquaint the Publick that William Love, by the Connivance of David Kerr,” Wodrow’s former attorney, “has this Day in his Possession an accepted Note for near two Hundred Pounds, drawn by Kerr on Mr. Gavin Lawson, and accepted by Mr. Lawson, payable to William Love, and Company.” Furthermore, “the said Note was fraudulently obtained” and accepted by Lawson “inadvertently.” Wodrow did not specify his relationship to Lawson or his interest in the matter.
That did not matter to Love. What did matter was that his reputation had been impugned in the public prints. In response, he dispatched his own “letter” to the printers. It appeared among other paid notices in column with a header that read, “Advertisements,” in the December 10 edition. Love cited the Wodrow’s advertisement, directing the printers (and readers) to “your Gazette of the 26th Ultimo.” For those who had not seen the previous advertisement and did not have access to the newspaper from two weeks ago, Love provided a summary of Wodrow’s allegations. He then declared that “the said Note is still in my Hands.” To defend his reputation, he invited “any Persons who will give themselves the Trouble to inquire into the Matter of Mr. Gavin Lawson, or the Gentlemen of Falmouth” to consult with Love directly. Upon doing so, Love was convinced that they would “be satisfied that there was no Fraud done or intended in this Transaction.” Even if no readers went to “the Trouble” of contacting Love for more information, he did not allow Wodrow the sole power of framing their dispute in the public prints.
It was a convoluted story. A significant sum and, just as valuable, the reputations of several colonizers were on the line. Dressing up their notices as letters to the printers and purchasing space in a newspaper gave both Wodrow and Love an opportunity to air their grievances, warn others of a potentially fraudulent note, and defend their reputations to the broader public beyond their local community in Falmouth. Purdie and Dixon published updates from London, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Williamsburg in the section of the newspaper devoted to news, but readers sometimes encountered accounts of local affairs, like the quarrel in Falmouth, among the advertisements.