What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Pelatiah Webster advertised a variety of goods available at his store on Water Street in Philadelphia at the end of 1772 and the beginning of 1773. Although he mentioned some imported items, he emphasized that he carried several items made in the colonies. He deployed a version of “Made in America” or “Buy American” even before the American Revolution. Purveyors of goods and services did so at various times during the imperial crisis that eventually resulted in thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain, most frequently during periods when colonizers adopted nonimportation agreements as political leverage. That did not mean, however, that advertisers did not encourage consumers to purchase “domestic manufactures” at times of relative calm.
Webster apparently believed that highlighting the American origins of many of his wares would aid in attracting customers. He may have also hoped that this strategy would remind consumers that they could make choices in the marketplace that had political ramifications. He opened his advertisement with a “NEAT assortment of BOSTON SHOES,” trumpeting their “excellent quality” and the “variety of colours.” Merchants and shopkeepers throughout the colonies often listed dozens of different kinds of imported textiles, hoping to match the tastes and budgets of prospective customers. Webster, on the other hand, stocked “a variety of coarse woollens, cottons, check flannels, &c. AMERICAN MANUFACTURE, very serviceable, at 2s. and 2s6 per yard.” Those textiles were not as fancy as imported alternatives, but Webster considered them both practical and, at two shillings or two shillings and six pence per yard, quire reasonable. For many colonizers, using such homespun fabrics became a badge of honor, a visible testimonial of their politics or commitment to supporting the local economy or both.
In the January 2, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, Webster’s advertisement ran in the first column on the final page, below George Weed’s advertisement for medicines he compounded at shop on Market Street, alternatives to patent medicines imported from London. The middle column consisted entirely of an advertisement in which Jonathan Zane and Sons cataloged a “large assortment of IRONMONGERY, CUTLERY, BRASS WARE, SADLERY, DYE STUFFS, PAINTERS COLOURS” and more that they acquired “at the manufactories of Great-Britain and imported in the last vessels from London and Bristol.” In the final column, John Marie’s advertisement ran once again, offering the services of a “TAYLOR, from PARIS” who had previously clothed “some of the most respectable Gentlemen in London.” That constellation of advertisements and marketing strategies on a single page testified to some of the tension inherent in consumer culture during the era of the American Revolution. Consumers navigated competing messages about the meanings of goods and services and how they should participate in the marketplace.