GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Opened my House … for the Reception of such Gentlemen and Ladies who may travel this Way.”
In this advertisement from the Providence Gazette, Abijah Hunt wrote that he had just opened up his house to the public. He promised “every Thing suitable for their Accommodation” to any gentlemen and ladies who might stop by.
When I first read through this advertisement I was confused about what exactly Hunt was advertising to readers: an inn or a tavern. He promised to accommodate travelers, but he also mentioned entertainment. On the Colonial Williamsburg webpage, Ed Crews writes that taverns were also called “inns, ordinaries, and public houses” in colonial America. Traveling performers often provided the entertainment in these inns. A wide variety of performers put on acts at these inns, such as magicians, actors, and musicians. Some acts included the use of animals, such as trained pigs. The most common instruments musicians used in their performances were violins, flutes, and trumpets. On nights when there was no provided entertainment, customers often sang together in groups.
Hunt wrote that some of the public taverns in Providence were “not so agreeable as those (to be found in most other large Towns).” Taverns and inns could vary greatly in their atmospheres. Crews describes many inns as “male-domains” where men drank too much and used foul language. Furthermore, “Felons planned crimes, fenced goods, and passed counterfeit money in inns. Fights and murders were common.” Refined women avoided taverns, but prostitutes visited often. In this advertisement, Hunt offered an alternative place of shelter and entertainment for those colonists who wanted a more safe and refined experience.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Mary paints a vivid picture of some of the activities that took place in taverns in the eighteenth century. In addition to being places of entertainment where colonists socialized, Mary also indicates that taverns provided a venue for participating in consumer culture in various ways, including fencing stolen goods and passing counterfeit money.
Such activities were part of what Serena R. Zabin has described as the “informal economy” in colonial America. Not all colonists had the means to purchase new goods directly from merchants and shopkeepers, but that did not prevent them seeking out other ways to obtain the “English, India, and West-India GOODS” that Samuel Nightingale, Jr., marketed on the page after Abijah Hunt’s advertisement appeared. Zabin and others have demonstrated that a vibrant secondhand economy operated in eighteenth-century America; colonists bought and sold used clothing and other goods. Yet others turned to more nefarious means to get their hands on the goods they desired, either stealing or purchasing stolen items. In today’s advertisement Abijah Hunt announced that he opened a house of entertainment to be a place of refuge for visitors “to this Town, both on Business and Recreation,” patrons that he believed wished to avoid some of the more unsavory activities (including the exchange of stolen goods) that took place in some taverns.
While newspaper advertisements reveal a lot about the availability of goods during the consumer revolution, they do not tell the entire story. Occasionally shopkeepers and others placed advertisements lamenting thefts and announcing rewards upon the capture and conviction of the perpetrators, but those who stole the goods almost certainly did not turn to newspapers to offer them for sale. Piecing together the informal economy that included fencing stolen goods, as Zabin has done, requires consulting court records. Those documents provide insight into how some colonists – consumers themselves – used and thought about goods, while newspaper advertisements, for the most part, suggest how retailers, producers, and suppliers attempted to shape colonists’ attitudes and behaviors related to consumption.