January 7

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

Providence Gazette (January 7, 1769).

“A HORSE stolen!”

Among the new advertisements that ran in the January 7, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, one proclaimed “A HORSE stolen!” Following that headline, the advertisement included further details, such as a description of the horse (“14 Hands and a half high, well set, 9 Years old, a dark Sorrel, intermixed with some white Hairs, and has some Spots under the Saddle”) and the date and time it had been stolen (“Tuesday Evening, the 27th of December”). The thief had made off with the saddle, bridle, and saddlebags as well. Finally, the advertisement offered two rewards: five dollars for finding and returning the horse or ten dollars for capturing the thief along with locating the horse.

While most of contents of the advertisement were standard for the genre, the lively headline, including the exclamation point, was not. The headline did, however, echo the headline in another advertisement in the same issue, the Once more! that introduced an estate notice placed by executors Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold. That advertisement also ran in the previous issue. Perhaps Samuel Danielson, Jr., had seen Olney and Arnold’s estate notice. Perhaps it had influenced him to devise a bold headline for his own advertisement. The signature at the end of Danielson’s advertisement indicated that he composed it on January 5 (even though the theft took place on December 27). He certainly could have seen the contents of the December 31 edition, including Olney and Arnold’s “Once more!” notice, before composing the copy for his own advertisement.

Danielson’s “A HORSE stolen!” headline suggests that eighteenth-century readers noted innovations in advertising and that some advertisers adopted those innovations when placing their own notices in the public prints. Yet they did so unevenly. Many other advertisers continued to place notices that deployed their names as the headlines or did not feature headlines at all. Notable for their innovation in the eighteenth century, headlines like “Once more!” and “A HORSE stolen!” were precursors of a common strategy later incorporated into newspaper advertisements in the nineteenth century.

January 11

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

jan-11-1111767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (January 10, 1767).

He intends to sell on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town.”

Eighteenth-century shopkeepers and artisans frequently made appeals to price in their advertisements, but they usually did not elaborate much beyond a few words or phrases assuring prospective customers that they charged “low rates” for their merchandise. On occasion, some advertisers, like Jabez Peirce, elaborated on this theme. He confidently proclaimed that he sold his “fresh assortment of European goods … on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” While he did not explicitly state that he offered low prices, he informed potential customers that they would not find better deals anywhere else around town.

In this regard, he adopted language similar to what appeared in other advertisements published in the Providence Gazette in recent weeks. In the previous issue, Elihu Robinson, a hatter, announced that he sold his wares “as Cheap for Cash, as … any Person in this Town.” Similarly, James Green pledged that he priced his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town.” Both Robinson and Green also favorably compared their prices to those in other places (indicating that consumers might travel to do some of their shopping or order goods from shopkeepers via the post, a service mentioned fairly regularly in advertisements). Robinson mentioned Boston and New York by name, but Green used the same phrase as Peirce: “neighbouring governments.”

Many advertisers used formulaic language in their commercial notices in the eighteenth century, which caused many advertisements to take on a standardized appearance (at least at first glance; close and careful reading yields variations, innovations, and attempts to distinguish some advertisements from the bulk of others that appeared on the page). That many printers preferred specific formats for fonts, sizes, and spacing when laying out advertisements for their own publications further contributed to creating a static visual culture of advertising within the pages of many newspapers. At a glance, graphic design and formulaic language made many advertisements appear indistinguishable.

Peirce’s advertisement is interesting and significant because it demonstrates how advertisers made the same appeals as their competitors, often even resorting to the same language, while simultaneously illustrating that unique appeals sometimes emerged in specific places and were quickly adopted by multiple advertisers. Although several advertisements in the Providence Gazette in early 1767 stressed the lowest prices in town, advertisers in other cities throughout the colonies universally relied on more general assertions about low prices, if they made appeals to price at all. Similarly, only advertisers in Providence showed any concern about local residents obtaining goods from competitors in “neighbouring governments.”

How long did that trend last? Did it eventually appear in advertisements published in other cities? Jabez Peirce’s advertisement raises interesting questions even as it further establishes a pattern in the Providence Gazette.

December 27

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

dec-27-12271766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (December 27, 1766).

“JUST IMPORTED, AND TO BE SOLD AT THE CHEAPEST RATE FOR CASH, BY Thompson and Arnold.”

Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement for “a fresh and general Assortment of English and India GOODS” filled the entire final page of the December 27, 1766, issue of the Providence Gazette. It was not the first full-page advertisement that appeared in that publication: shopkeepers Joseph and William Russell ran a full-page advertisement on November 22, five weeks earlier, and inserted it almost every week since then. The Russells’ oversized advertisement ran on November 29 and December 13 and 20. Except for the December 6 issue of the Providence Gazette, a full-page advertisement on the final page became a regular feature of that publication.

Thompson and Arnold’s full-page advertisement was not the first of its kind, but that did not mean that it lacked significance. At the very least, purchasing the entire final page bolstered the shopkeepers’ prestige, but it also demonstrated that they paid attention to the marketing strategies deployed by their competitors and adopted them to promote their own enterprises. (Keep in mind that Thompson and Arnold previously experimented with oversized advertisements that resembled trade cards, rather than broadsides. Some of their competitors adopted this form in subsequent issues.) Running a full-page advertisement could have been a gimmick limited only to the Joseph and William Russell, a stunt that quickly dissolved into obscurity. The Russells’ advertisement, however, was not merely ephemeral. Other entrepreneurs experimented with the same form. Sarah Goddard and Company, the printers, also may have encouraged regular advertisers to upgrade to full-page advertisements. Clearly both advertisers and the printers of the Providence Gazette engaged with the possibilities offered by the full-page advertisement, a broadside distributed as the final page of the port’s weekly newspaper. In the first issue of 1767, shopkeeper James Green joined the ranks of local retailers who invested in full-page advertisements.

I have not yet had the opportunity to examine subsequent issues of the Providence Gazette published in 1767 too see how long full-page advertisements continued to appear, but I will continue to track this aspect of that newspaper as the Adverts 250 Project progresses through the new year. I do not know exactly what to expect, given the eagerness to experiment with oversized advertisements of various sorts exhibited by Sarah Goddard and Company. That being said, full-page advertisements did not become a staple of marketing notices in American newspapers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Indeed, most historians of both printing and advertising date the origin of full-page advertisements to the middle of the nineteenth century. Even though full-page advertisements did not become a standard feature of newspapers in the 1760s, those that appeared in the Providence Gazette – promoting the businesses of several different retailers – comprise a milestone of innovation and experimentation with marketing that merits additional investigation.

November 2

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

nov-2-1111766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (November 1, 1766).

“A Variety of English, East and West-India GOODS, … to be sold at the cheapest Rate for CASH.”

In this advertisement in the Providence Gazette, Samuel Nightingale, Jr., sold an assortment of goods from England, as well as both the East and West Indies, in his “new Shop, near the Great Bridge” in Providence.

Since this advertisement mentions earlier issues that included the actual information about what was being sold, I went in search of them. In issue 145, published on October 25, 1766, I found a much larger advertisement with a vast list of goods. The majority of the items on the list were linens and other sorts of textiles, but it also included other things, such as “Ivory and buckling combs,” “Pewter dishes, plates and basons,” and “Flat irons. English Steel.”

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Providence Gazette (October 18, 1766).

Pewter was very popular in the eighteenth century. James A. Mulholland notes that “[a]ll but the poorest families owned at least one or two pewter items, and wealthier families accumulated substantial inventories of pewterware, including porrigngers, tankards, coffeepots, and candlesticks.”[1] He also noted that the majority of pewter came from England.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

I was very excited when Ceara selected this advertisement. When guest curators are participating in this project I leave the decisions about which advertisements to feature to them, provided they follow the project’s methodology. That means that they sometimes pass over advertisements that I find either interesting or significant, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes when working on a collaborative project. After all, the guest curators can learn something interesting or significant about colonial America from any advertisement.

Why was I so excited when Ceara submitted this advertisement for approval? She mentioned the reason in her own analysis. Samuel Nightingale, Jr., instructed potential customers to “[see No. 144 and 145 of this Gazette]” for a list of the “Variety of English, East and West-India GOODS” that he sold. When she noticed this, Ceara did the sort of historical detective work that I consider an enjoyable part of this project: she consulted the earlier issues (October 11 and 18, 1766) of the Providence Gazette to find out more about those advertisements. In the process, she discovered an advertisement that resembled others by Thompson and Arnold and Benjamin Thurber and Edward Thurber, both previously featured by the Adverts 250 Project.

In the course of a few weeks, Nightingale published two advertisements with rather extraordinary features. His first advertisement borrowed innovations from competitors, but those innovations had not been so widely adopted that Nightingale’s advertisement blended in with others. With a decorative border and spanning two columns, Nightingale’s earlier advertisements dominated the pages on which they appeared.

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Providence Gazette (October 18, 1766).

Today’s advertisement did not have the same visual impact, but it did incorporate one rather unusual feature. It instructed readers to consult another newspaper to see the original advertisement. Nightingale assumed a high level of interest among potential customers. At the very least, he hoped to incite interest by offering a brief description and then challenging readers to find the original advertisements in earlier issues.

This tells us something about how colonists used newspapers. Nightingale’s directions to “[see No. 144 and 145 of this Gazette]” only worked if readers still had access to those issues. It suggests that subscribers held on to newspapers for at least several weeks to consult the news, advertisements, and other items they contained. Newspapers were not immediately ephemeral in the eighteenth century. In turn, that means that the advertisement printed in colonial newspapers had longer lives than the week that passed before the publication of the next issue.

Running his lengthy advertisement for two weeks may have been a significant investment for Samuel Nightingale, Jr., but it may also have been a risk worth taking if he could depend on it to keep circulating for quite some time after that. To shore up his bet, today’s brief notice directed potential customers back to the impressive original advertisement.

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[1] James A. Mulholland, History of Metals in Colonial America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981), 95.

September 13

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

Sep 13 - 9:13:1766 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 13, 1766).

“AT BENJAMIN and EDWARD THURBER’s Shops, at the Signs of the Bunch of Grapes and Lyon.”

On August 9, 1766, Thompson and Arnold placed an exceptional advertisement in the Providence Gazette, an advertisement guaranteed to attract attention thanks to its innovative graphic design. Unlike the standard advertisement that appeared elsewhere in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers throughout the colonies, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement extended across two columns, sequestered from other content on the page by a decorative border comprised of printer’s ornaments. Within the advertisement, the extensive list of merchandise was set in three columns, further disrupting the lines formed by the other columns on that page and the rest of the issue. Furthermore, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement was so large that it dominated the page. At a glance, it seemed more like a trade card or handbill, meant to be distributed separately, yet superimposed on the newspaper page.

Thompson and Arnold’s striking advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette in subsequent issues, moving to different corners of the page depending on the needs of the printer, but always the focal point no matter the quadrant where it appeared. Then something even more interesting happened just five weeks later. The Providence Gazette featured another advertisement, this one the shops operated by Benjamin and Edward Thurber, that imitated the graphic design of Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement. It was oversized. It spread across two columns. It included a decorative border made of printing ornaments. It further disrupted the lines on the page by dividing the merchandise into three columns. It could have been distributed separately as a handbill or trade card.

Benjamin and Edward Thurber’s advertisement appeared on the third page of the September 13, 1766, issue of the Providence Gazette. Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement continued to appear on the fourth page. What might Thompson and Arnold have thought of their competitors aping their unique graphic design? Advertisers seemed to be paying attention to the commercial notices placed by others and updating their own marketing in response to what they saw and what they anticipated would be effective.