January 22

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Massachusetts Gazette (January 19, 1769).

“At his House next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.”

When Benjamin Adams placed an advertisement in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette to announce that “he intends to open a Public Vendue” or auction at his house, he included a landmark to help readers find the location. They could find his house “next Door to the Sign of the Three Kings in Cornhill.” That sign was one of many that helped colonial Bostonians find businesses and navigate the streets of the urban port. Similar shop signs were a familiar sight in other colonial towns and cities.

Today students in my introductory early American history class at Assumption College begin a project that seeks to identify all the shop signs listed in newspapers printed in Boston in 1769 and, eventually, locate them in relation to others on a map from the period. Although this will be an incomplete roster of the shop signs in the city 250 years ago, it will help to create a sense of an important visual aspect of a bustling urban port on the eve of the American Revolution.

We begin the project with a history lab. Instead of a lecture or discussion about assigned readings, today we will devote our time in class to a workshop that introduces students to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. Once students have learned how to use that resource, they will work in teams to download digital copies of newspapers printed in Boston in 1769. Each team will be responsible for one newspaper. After they have acquired their newspapers, students will read through the advertisements (and, hopefully, pause to investigate some of the other content) as they search for shop signs. Each team will draw up a roster of shop signs they encounter. Later in the semester, we will plot the signs on a map from the period. I have enrolled in an introductory Geographic Information Systems class in hopes of producing a digital map based on this work.

This is very much an experiment. It may work extremely well, but it has the potential to be quite challenging, especially if we do not encounter a critical mass of shop signs in advertisements from 1769. Even if that is the case, students will enhance their research skills and information literacy. They will also learn an important lesson that historians are often confined by the sources available to us. This project is as much about the process of doing history as it is learning about the past.

January 21

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (January 21, 1769).

“RUN away from his Master … a well-set Negro Manm Slave, named Isaac.”

By the time the January 21, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette was published, Samuel Rose had been placing an advertisement offering a reward for “a well-set Negro Man Slave, named Isaac,” who had run away in late November of the previous year for an entire month. Isaac had “a Scar on his Forehead” and a “thick Beard.” According to Rose, the enslaved man could “play on a Fiddle, and loves strong Drink,” though savvy readers likely realized that many slaveholder exaggerated when it came to that latter detail. Rose also warned “Masters of Vessels, and others” against providing assistance, whether “carrying off or harbouring” Isaac.

The tone of this advertisement advanced starkly different rhetoric than other items published on the same page and elsewhere throughout the issue. John Carter’s advertisement for “A NEW EDITION” of Abraham Weatherwise’s “New-England TOWN and COUNTRY Almanack” filled the entire column immediately to the right. The notable contents of the almanac promoted in the advertisement included “a beautiful poetical Essay on Public Spirit, wrote by an American Patriot” and a Portrait of the celebrated JOHN WILKES, Esq.,” the radical English politician and journalist considered friendly to the American cause during the imperial crisis that led to the Revolution. In the upper left corner of the page, a poem entitled “ADDRESS to LIBERTY” by “AMERICANUS” appeared before any of advertisements. The poem lamented recent encroachments on colonists’ liberty by “tyrant Lords,” but it addressed only the position of white colonists and not enslaved men, women, and children. The poem did not make room for Isaac the justice that was supposed to be extended to English sons who had “cross’d th’atlantic Seas / To Climes unknown.” News filled most of the rest of the issue, including a “humble Address of the House of Commons to the KING.” Parliament stated that it would “be ever ready to hear any real grievance of Your Majesty’s American subjects,” but insisted it was “one of our most important duties, to maintain entire and inviolate the supreme authority of the legislature of Great-Britain, over every part of the British empire.” Colonists considered this enslavement.

Amidst all of this rhetoric circulating in conversations and the public prints, Isaac determined to seize his own liberty. Although Rose did not recognize it, the enslaved man put into action the ideals that so many of his white neighbors espoused in the late 1760s.

January 20

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Journal (January 20, 1769).

“He has an Assortment of GOODS on Hand.”

Although advertisements often appeared on the final pages of eighteenth-century newspapers, that was not always the case. Printers and compositors experimented with the placement of news, paid notices, and other content. Consider, for example, the January 20, 1769, edition of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy. The front page featured both advertising and news. Immediately below the masthead, Michael Todd’s notice calling on former customers to settle accounts and advising prospective customers that he had “an Assortment of GOODS on Hand, as usual,” was the first item readers encountered. Two more advertisements ran in the same column above news from Boston. News from London comprised the remainder of the page. An editorial concerning the local “Manufacturing of Linen” to “put a Stop to the Importation of British Cloth,” submitted by pseudonymous “JONATHAN HOMESPUN,” comprised most of the second page. Other editorial items filled the third page. News from Philadelphia and New York, as well as the shipping news from New Haven, appeared on the final page, along with two more advertisements. Readers who perused that issue of the Connecticut Journal from first page to last began and ended with advertisements, but that was not always the case.

Usually printers Thomas Green and Samuel Green or a compositor who worked for them positioned the paid notices after the other content. Whoever set the type for the January 20 edition experimented with something different. For the standard four-page issue, type for the first and fourth pages, printed on one side of a broadsheet, could be set independently of the second and third pages, printed on the other side. Skilled compositors, for instance, could start a new item in the first column of the second page and end another item in the last column of the third page, allowing them to begin printing one side of the broadsheet before even setting type for the other. The compositor may have made an effort to do so in the January 20 edition of the Connecticut Journal, but was not completely successful. The letter from Jonathan Homespun filled most of the second page. A few lines of another editorial ran at the bottom, overflowing to the third page. A recipe for a home remedy began at the bottom of the third page and concluded on the fourth. The compositor then had sufficient space to insert all of the advertisements on that last page, but opted to place some on the first instead, departing from the usual format for that newspaper. As a result, that issue of the Connecticut Journal replicated the appearance of other newspapers that sometimes ran advertisements on the first page. Colonial printers did not uniformly give precedence to news on the front page and relegate advertising to other places in the newspaper.

January 19

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Gazette (January 19, 1769).

“For HOGS BRISTLES, Ready Money, and best Price, is given.”

Relatively few advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers featured visual images, making those that did particularly notable. Along with their type, many printers had a limited number of stock images to accompany certain kinds of advertisements, including houses for real estate notices, ships for notices about vessels seeking freight and passengers, and horses for notices offering stallions “to cover” mares. In addition, many printers also supplied nondescript depictions of people to accompany advertisements concerning runaway servants, runaway slaves, and enslaved men, women, and children for sale. Most of the time they matched the sex seen in the image with that of the subject of an advertisement, but not always. For each sort of image – houses, ships, horses, people – the woodcuts were used interchangeably in advertisements placed for the corresponding purpose. Any woodcut of a house could accompany a real estate notice. Any woodcut of an enslaved man could appear in a runaway advertisement.

Some shopkeepers and artisans, however, commissioned their own woodcuts to represent their businesses in the public prints. Those woodcuts belonged exclusively to the advertiser; they did not appear in any other notices. Sometimes they replicated a shop sign, as was the case with a woodcut of a mirror on a decorative stand and a bell enclosed in a frame in John Elliott’s advertisement that once again ran in the January 19, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Elliott directed prospective customers to “his Looking-glass store, the sign of the Bell and Looking-glass, in Walnut-street.” He also mentioned a second location “at the Three Brushes, in Second-Street,” but did not include an image of that shop sign. The “Bell and Looking-glass” had circulated so widely in Philadelphia’s newspapers that it served as Elliott’s iconic image.

In the same issue, John Wilkinson, a brushmaker, placed an advertisement dominated by a woodcut depicting a boar. The visual image occupied more than twice as much space as the copy of the advertisement, a stark contrast to the notices comprised solely of text, all of them densely formatted, on either side of Wilkinson’s advertisement. Wilkinson called on readers to provide him with “HOGS BRISTLES” that he could then use in making brushes of “all Sorts and Sizes.” His woodcut depicted the source of his materials rather than the final product. When it came to the copy of his advertisement, the brushmaker adopted a less-is-more approach, depending on the woodcut to attract attention and distinguish his advertisement from the dozens of others in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

January 18

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Georgia Gazette (January 18, 1769).

“WILLIAM SAUNDERS, Sailmaker, … flatters himself with the hopes of their commands.”

In an advertisement placed in the January 18, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette, William Saunders, a sailmaker, lead former and prospective customers through a dance in which each move achieved some purpose related to running his business. First, he expressed gratitude to those who had ordered sails from him in the past, stating that he “TAKES this opportunity of returning his sincere thanks to the gentlemen merchants and others of the town of Savannah, for the kind encouragement he has met with at their hands since his arrival at this place.”

The wording suggested that he might have been a relative newcomer to the colony’s most significant port. If that was the case, acknowledging that some “gentlemen merchants and others” in Savannah had already expressed their support for his venture or perhaps even engaged his services would have been particularly important in setting up his next move. He pivoted from a note of appreciation into calling on those same boosters to submit more orders. He pledged that “they may be assured of the strictest dispatch imaginable” when they contracted with him and his partner, Callighan McCarthy, for sails. For prospective customers who had not previously purchased sails from him, Saunders signaled that he was a capable artisan, as demonstrated by his interactions with those “gentlemen merchants and others.”

Only then did the sailmaker become more vigorous. In a final paragraph his called on “those gentlemen who are indebted to him” to settle accounts by the first of March. If they did not, he would “be under the disagreeable necessity of putting their accounts into the hands of an attorney at law.” That was a last resort, a step that Saunders wished to avoid. Compared to another advertisement in the same issue, his initial movements softened the warning that followed. Thomas Morgan inserted a notice for the sole purchase of informing his debtors “that they will find their accounts in the hands of an attorney at law to be sued for without distinction” if they did not pay by the first of March. Saunders and Morgan issued the same threat, but Saunders did so only after nurturing his rapport with customers and other readers of the Georgia Gazette.

January 17

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (January 17, 1769).

“Will be sold greatly under the usual Prices, to clear off his Stock.”

CLEARANCE SALE!!! Robert Alcock did not deploy a striking headline when he placed an advertisement in the January 17, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette, but his marketing strategy did indeed amount to throwing a clearance sale. He announced that his inventory included “AN Assortment of Checks” (or textiles woven with a checked pattern) in various widths as well as “Breeches Patterns, and Hose of all Prices, with a Variety of other Articles.” Yet the abundant choices he made available to consumers was not the primary focus of his advertisement. Instead, he made the sale he was sponsoring the centerpiece of his marketing efforts.

John Appleton advertised in the same issue of the Essex Gazette. His comment on price was typical of advertisers who mentioned how much prospective customers could expect to pay for their merchandise. Appleton asserted that he was “determined to sell very low,” but in doing so may not have garnered particular attention from readers. He adopted such formulaic language that it likely communicated to prospective customers that his prices were competitive rather than inflated but perhaps not bargains that could not be found in other shops.

Alcock’s appeal to price, on the other hand, deviated significantly from the standard language that appeared in newspaper advertisements throughout the colonies. He proclaimed that he offered his wares “greatly under the usual Prices, to clear off his Stock.” Unlike Appleton’s “determined to sell low,” this vocabulary stood out. It did promise better deals than consumers would encounter in other shops around town. Politics may have played a role in shaping Alcock’s advertising. If he had stockpiled imported goods in advance of nonimportation agreements enacted to protest the Townshend Act going into effect, he may have found himself in a position that he needed to devise an innovative marketing strategy. Whatever the reason, Alcock determined that his inventory was too large and that he needed to drastically reduce it. His efforts to “clear off his Stock” by selling it “greatly under the usual Prices” was an eighteenth-century clearance sale that lacked much of the hoopla that later accompanied such sales as part of modern marketing campaigns.

January 15

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Boston Chronicle (January 12, 1769).

The sittings of the superior and inferior courts … may be depended on as correct.”

In January 1769, printers and booksellers throughout the colonies advertised almanacs for the new year, attempting to sell excess inventory rather than take a loss on surplus copies. In his efforts to incite demand for a second edition of “BICKERSTAFFs BOSTON ALMANACK,” John Mein emphasized the accuracy of its contents, especially the dates of the “sittings of the superior and inferior courts” in Massachusetts. In so doing, Mein implicitly referenced a dispute between other printers in Boston, William McAlpine on one side and T. and J. Fleet, Edes and Gill, and Richard Draper on the other. After McAlpine issued Nathaniel Ames’s Astronomical Diary, or, Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ 1769 in the fall of 1768, a cabal of rival printers published a counterfeit edition of the popular almanac. To add insult to injury, they promoted the pirated copy by running advertisements that claimed “a counterfeit Ames’s Almanack has been printed not agreeable to the original copy” and implied that it contained “above Twenty Errors in the Sittings of the Courts.”

Mein did not weigh in on that controversy, but as one of the printers of the Boston Chronicle he almost certainly would have been aware of it. With so many competing titles, he took advantage of an opportunity to distinguish the almanac that he printed and sold at his bookstore on King Street. His advertisement in the January 12 edition of the Boston Chronicle did not comment on any of the contents except to declare the accuracy of the court dates. Mein did not highlight any of the entertaining features. He did not promote other useful information included in the almanac. Instead, he assured prospective customers that “The sittings of the superior and inferior courts of this province, inserted in this Almanack, may be depended on as correct; being obtained from a Gentlemen, one of the Clerks of the court.” Mein had done his due diligence in confirming the dates with a reputable source before taking the almanac to press. Furthermore, “The same care has been taken with the courts of the other provinces.” Prospective customers who might have business in Connecticut, New Hampshire, or Rhode Island could depend the accuracy of the dates in Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack.

That Mein issued a second edition testified to the popularity of the almanac, yet he presented readers an additional reason for choosing it over others. Amidst the uncertainty of which edition of Ames’s Almanack contained accurate information, consumers could sidestep the confusion by purchasing Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack instead. Its contents had been carefully compiled after consultation with officials who possessed the most accurate information about when the courts would conduct business in 1769.

January 14

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (January 14, 1769).

“To be Sold at the Golden Eagle.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, advertisers used a variety of other means to advise prospective customers where to find their shops and stores. Consider the directions offered in advertisements in the January 14, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Samuel Chace listed his location as “just below the Great Bridge.” Similarly, Samuel Black specified that his store was “on the West Side of the Great Bridge, and near the Long Wharff.” Other advertisers included even more elaborate instructions. Darius Sessions reported that his shop was “on the main Street, between the Court-House and Church, and directly opposite the large Button-Wood Tree.” Patrick Mackey announced that “he has opened a Skinner’s Shop near the Hay-Ward, on the East Side of the Great Bridge, between Mr. Godfry’s and the Sign of the Bull.” These advertisers expected prospective customers would navigate the city via a combination of street names, landmarks, and shop signs.

In contrast, another advertisement, one that did not name the merchant or shopkeeper who inserted it in the Providence Gazette, simply proclaimed, “a general Assortment of ENGLISH and HARD WARE GOODS, to be Sold at the Golden Eagle.” The store operated by Joseph Russell and William Russell was so renowned that its location did not require elaboration. The Russells considered it so well known that they did not need to include their names in the advertisement. Instead, their shop sign served as the sole representation of their business in the public prints. “Golden Eagle” even appeared in larger font, making it the central focus of advertisement. In other advertisements, the names “Samuel Chace,” “Samuel Black,” and “Darius Sessions” drew attention as headlines in font the same size as “Golden Eagle.” This was not the first time that the Russells had excluded their names in favor of having their shop sign stand in for them. A brief advertisement published two months earlier informed readers about “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” That they repeatedly deployed this strategy suggests their confidence that their shop sign was known and recognized, both by readers who perused the Providence Gazette and by prospective customers who traversed the streets of Providence.

January 13

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-London Gazette (January 13, 1769).

“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers.”

A subscription notice for “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES” appeared among the advertisements in the January 13, 1769, edition of the New-London Gazette. The advertising copy exactly replicated that of a notice published in the New-York Journal a month earlier, with one exception. Like other subscription notices, it informed prospective customers where to submit their names to reserve a copy: “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, Charles-Town, South-Carolina, and at New London in Connecticut.” The previous advertisement did not list New London. It had been added to the subscription notice in the New-London Gazette to better engage local readers.

Whether including New London or not, both versions of the subscription notice invoked the concept of what Benedict Anderson has famously described as “imagined community.” Print culture contributed to a sense of community among readers dispersed over great distances by allowing them to read the same newspapers, books, and pamphlets, all while imaging that their counterparts in other cities and towns were simultaneously reading them and imbibing the same information and ideas. This subscription notice envisioned readers in Boston and Charleston and place in between all purchasing and reading the same book. Anderson argues that imagined community achieved via print played a vital role in the formation of the nation. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist, had become a popular figure in the colonies during the imperial crisis. The subscription notice for his works appeared while the Townshend Act was in effect, at the same time that many colonists mobilized nonimportation agreements in protest and the New-Hampshire Gazette was printed on smaller sheets because the publishers refused to import paper from England that would require them to pay duties.

The slightly revised version of the subscription notice had the capacity to even more effectively invoke the idea of an imagined community among colonists. It did not limit the collection of subscriptions to the four largest port cities, the places with the most printers and the most newspapers. Instead, by listing New London with Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia, the subscription notice expanded the sphere of engagement by making the proposed book more accessible on the local level for readers and prospective subscribers in New London and its environs. Reading Wilkes was not just for colonists in urban settings. Instead, it was an endeavor for colonists anywhere and everywhere.

January 12

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-York Journal (January 12, 1769)

“[No Room for News. Advertisements left out will be in our next.]”

John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, faced a dilemma when he prepared the January 12, 1769, edition to go to press. He had too much content for the standard four-page issue. A short notice at the bottom of the final column on the third page advised readers that there was “[No Room for News. Advertisements left out will be in our next.]”

Why place this notice on the third page instead of the last? Consider the mechanics of printing a four-page newspaper on a hand-operated press in eighteenth-century America. Minimizing the number of impressions reduced the amount of time required working at the press. To maximize efficiency, printers produced the standard four-page edition by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. This required setting type for the fourth and first pages to print simultaneously and then the second and third pages to print together. Compositors usually set the exterior pages first, in part because they included material that repeated from week to week, such as the masthead on the first page and the colophon and advertisements on the fourth page. The type for the third page often would have been the last set for the issue, explaining why Holt’s notice about not having enough space for all the news and advertisements appeared at the bottom of the final column of that page.

Still, Holt made additional efforts to serve his customers. A legal notice concerning James Cunningham, “an insolvent debtor,” that otherwise would have appeared among the advertisements instead ran along the right margin of the third page. It concerned a hearing that would take place on January 17, before publication of the next edition of the New-York Journal. If Holt wished to generate the advertising revenue, it was imperative to find a way to insert that advertisement in the January 12 issue. Printers sometimes ran short advertisements in the margins, rotating the text so it appeared perpendicular to the rest of the column. In most cases such advertisements ran in several columns, only a few lines each and the same width as the columns that ran the length of the entire page. Compositors used advertisements that already appeared in previous issues, transferring lines of type already set. The legal notice concerning Cunningham, however, had not previously appeared in the New-York Journal. It appeared as a short but wide paragraph that ran the length of the page.

Holt also issued a two-page Supplement to the New-York Journal. Except for the masthead, the first page consisted entirely of “The ANATOMIST, No. XIV,” the next installment in a series of essays that ran in the weekly supplement. The essay concluded on the following page, leaving space for some news (“JOURNAL of OCCURRENCES, continued,” with the dateline “BOSTON, December 10”) and two advertisements. One of those advertisements included a notation on the final line, “56 59,” to remind the compositor that the advertisement was to appear in issues 1356 through 1359. The January 12 edition and its supplement comprised issue 1358. Though he did not have sufficient space in the standard issue, Holt made room in the supplement to insert that advertisement.

As the January 12, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal demonstrates, colonial printers and compositors made creative choices in their efforts to circulate news and advertising to colonial readers and consumers. Even as he offered assurances to advertisers that their notices would indeed appear in the next issue, Holt finagled additional space that allowed some to circulate immediately rather than being delayed a week.