What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Publick would only laugh … at so many flashy Advertisements as weekly present themselves to their View.”
The introduction to Nathaniel Sparhawk’s advertisement listing an array of goods available at his shop in Salem was typical of those that appeared in the Essex Gazette and other newspapers in the early 1770s: “Just imported in the last Ships, Captains Scott and Lyde from London, and Smith from Bristol, A great Variety of English and India GOODS, suitable for the Season, All or any of which will be sold extremely cheap for Cash or short Credit.” Sparhawk had good reason for including each detail, all of them standard elements of marketing consumer goods in the eighteenth century. In a nota bene, he made additional appeals concerning price: “As said Sparhawk proposes to quit his present Business (as soon as he can without Loss) to pursue some other Brach; all his good Customers, and others, may depend on being served with good Pennyworths, determining to sell at a very low Advance, or for very small Profits.”
Samuel Flagg did not think much of any of those methods, or so he claimed. In contrast to the kinds of introductions offered by Sparhawk and others, Flagg simply stated that he “has the following Articles, which he would be glad to sell.” After an extensive catalog of his merchandise, the shopkeeper inserted a lengthy diatribe about advertising practices then in fashion. “The said FLAGG,” he proclaimed, “don’t mean to make such a Parade, nor furnish the Publick with so many pompous Promises (as have lately been exhibited) of Goods being so amazingly cheap, but would rather convince them of the Cheapness of his Goods and of his Integrity in dealing, whenever they may please to call and favour him with their Custom.” Flagg managed to make his own appeal to low prices while also mocking the pronouncements so often published by his competitors. He confided to readers that they all knew proclamations about offering the lowest prices or not being undersold were hyperbole. Rather than perpetuate that kind of marketing, he promised prospective customers that he would be an honest broker.
To that end, Flagg acknowledged that “he could very easily tell them a Story, about where his Goods were made, who shipped them, what Ship brought them, who trucked them, how much they cost, how much cheaper they were than ever imported before, and how much he held himself obliged to the good People for looking at them, without buying.” While composing his advertisement, Flagg could have gone through Sparhawk’s notice to identify and address each detail to denigrate. He considered all those details and insinuations about why one shopkeeper’s prices and inventory were supposedly the best rather foolish … and he believed that readers shared his view. Flagg concluded his tirade with an assertion that “the Publick would only laugh at” such stories,” as they must do, at so many flashy Advertisements as weekly present themselves to their View, with no more true Meaning than the above recited Story would contain.”
His disdain for such stories did not prevent Flagg from resorting to one very popular marketing strategy. He listed scores of goods, demonstrating to consumers how many choices he made available to them at his shop. Several of his competitors also listed dozens of items, but none named as many as Flagg did in his notice. In addition, that notice occupied more space on the page than any other advertisement in the December 29, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette, even without the jeremiad about marketing that concluded it. Flagg certainly had some views about what he considered negative developments in advertising, but he was not immune to adopting one of the most prevalent strategies for attempting to entice readers to become consumers.