What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The most minute and trifling article, INDISPUTABLY CHEAPER than they could possibly do in London.”
Working on behalf of the beneficiary of George Thomson’s estate at the end of August 1773, Benjamin Villepontoux attempted to liquidate the remaining inventory in the store “lately occupied” by Thomson on Tradd Street in Charleston. The merchandise included a “Large and valuable assortment of DRY GOODS,” most of them imported by Thomson “in the month of October last.” Although nearly a year had passed, Villepontoux insisted that the goods were still in style, reiterating the word “fashionable” in the list of goods in the advertisement: “SUPERFINE fashionable broad cloths, with trimming,” Fashionable beaver hats, with gold and silver bands,” “fashionable cloaks,” and “the most fashionable ribbons.” Similarly, he promoted a “variety of genteel articles in the millinary branch” and “very elegant embroidered brocade for waistcoats.”
Villepontoux hoped that such descriptions would attract both consumers and, especially, retailers. To encourage prospective buyers to take a significant portion of the inventory, he allowed credit until January 1774 to anyone who made a purchase “of 50l. sterling, at one time.” Otherwise, “immediate payment will be expected” for smaller sales. This was an opportunity for “planters, shopkeepers, and others” to acquire even “the most minute and trifling article, INDISPUTABLY CHEAPER than they could possibly do in London.” How could Villepontoux make such a promise about these fashionable wares? How could the prices in Charleston beat the prices in London? He asserted that the goods “were purchased, in large parcels, of the original manufacturers, with the utmost care and pains.” He rehearsed a narrative often delivered by merchants who sought to convince shopkeepers and consumers that they offered the best deals. Rather than dealing with English merchants, middlemen responsible for inflating prices, Thomson contracted with the producers directly. That lowered his costs, as did purchasing in volume. That meant that Thomson (and now Villepontoux) could give bargains to colonizers in South Carolina by passing along the discounts.
In his effort to clear out the merchandise at Thomson’s store, Villepontoux combined a variety of popular marketing appeals. He invoked choice, fashion, price, and connections to the most cosmopolitan city in the empire. To persuade prospective buyers that they did not want to pass on the deals now available, he presented an explanation about how he managed to set low prices. Those circumstances suggested the possibility of negotiating favorable transactions with an already motivated seller.