March 28

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

Mar 28 - 3:28:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 28, 1768).

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY.”

John Gerrish was one of several auctioneers who sold goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE” in Boston in the late 1760s. He regularly advertised in the city’s newspapers, as did Elias Dupee and Joseph Russell. Residents recognized their establishments by name: Gerrish ran the “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE, NORTH END,” Russell operated the “Auction-Room in Queen-Street,” and Dupee sold goods at the “NEW AUCTION ROOM.” In their competition for clients and bidders, all three inserted notices concerning upcoming auctions in the March 28, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette. Each offered a short description of items coming up for sale within the next couple of weeks, but Gerrish supplemented his brief overview with an additional appeal to prospective clients who wished to place items up for bidding.

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH,” he proclaimed, “may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders – and remitting the Neat proceeds immediately, after they are Sold, deliver’d, and paid for.” Gerrish’s clients “shall be faithfully served by him.” Dupee, Russell, and Gerrish periodically offered such assurances in their advertisements, but Gerrish made a point of it in the spring of 1768 since he and Dupee had recently been involved in a public dispute, waged in their newspaper advertisements, that highlighted the potential for disreputable behavior by vendue masters who might not always act in the best interests of their clients.

In stressing his “Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders,” Gerrish addressed suspicions of collusion. His clients did not need to worry that he would attempt to rig sales to benefit his friends and associates looking to acquire goods for even better bargains than auctions might otherwise yield. The typography underscored this point: an examination of other advertisements in the same issue suggests that the compositor did not choose to capitalize “FAIRLY” or use italics for “Faithfulness” and “Highest Bidders” (as well as “Trustees” in a list of potential clients that included “Gentlemen Strangers, Passengers, [and] Factors”).

Consigning goods to an auctioneer required trust. Gerrish encouraged potential clients to deliver items they wished to sell to the Public Vendue Office in the North End rather than the Auction Room in Queen Street or the New Auction Room by pledging that he conscientiously worked to garner the highest proceeds and remitted them in a timely manner. He did not just offer a service; he built relationships that also enhanced his reputation.

February 21

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

Feb 21 - 2:18:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 18, 1768).

“No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office.”

John Gerrish had a bone to pick with Elias Dupee. Gerrish operated the North-End Vendue-Office. Dupee, his rival, ran the New-Auction Room. The two competed for both clients who supplied merchandise and bidders who purchased those wares.

On February 15, 1768, Dupee placed advertisements impugning Gerrish’s reputation in two newspapers, the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy. Gerrish was so concerned about the accusations leveled against him that he did not wait a week to respond in the publications that originally ran Dupee’s advertisement. Instead, he published his own rebuttal just three days later in the Massachusetts Gazette. After devoting just a few lines to promoting his upcoming auction, Gerrish addressed Dupee’s allegations at length. Though he never mentioned his rival by name, Gerrish did closely paraphrase a portion of Dupee’s advertisement.

Dupee had offered a reward “to be paid to any Body, who shall bring to Justice, one John Taylor, who Stole out of the New Auction Room, the Night the Fire was, a blue Surtout Coat, and had it Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Anyone who resided in Boston would have know that John Gerrish was the auctioneer at the North-End Vendue-Office, especially anyone who regularly read any of the local newspapers. Gerrish, like Dupee and Joseph Russell from the Auction-Room in Queen Street, advertised regularly in several newspapers.

In his advertisement, Dupee explicitly accused Taylor of being a thief, but he also implicitly alleged that Gerrish was Taylor’s fence when he stated that the stolen coat had been “Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Such allegations had the potential to do significant damage to Gerrish’s reputation, scaring away bidders who did not wish to obtain stolen merchandise as well as suppliers who did not want their own names or ware associated with illicit business practices. Gerrish answered Dupee’s charges with a detailed timeline. The “Coat Sold for Taylor” had entered the North-End Vendue-Office ten days before the fire at Dupee’s New Auction Room, therefore it could not have been the same coat stolen the night of the fire. In addition, Gerrish identified discrepancies between the quality and price of the coat auctioned at his establishment and the one stolen from Dupee. Furthermore, the coat had been on display and “every Day exposed for Sale,” suggesting that many witnesses could attest to having seen it at the North-End Vendue-Office. Some of them could confirm the quality and value of that coat.

Gerrish acknowledged the possibility that Taylor had stolen a coat from Dupee, but if he had it was not the one that Gerrish auctioned. “Taylor may be a Thief,” he stated, “but verily he did not look more like one, than the Advertiser.” Dupee had attacked Gerrish’s reputation. Gerrish responded in kind. He also underscored, just in case readers had not followed all the complexity of his timeline, that “there is not the least probability, that the Coat Advertised, is the same that was Sold at the North-End Vendue-Office.”

Gerrish concluded with a message for prospective clients and potential bidders. “No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office, in endeavouring to detect suspected persons, –he has detected several, –let others beware.” Many colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century via an informal economy that included secondhand and stolen goods. Newspaper advertisements frequently alerted readers about stolen goods. In addition, court records show that theft and fencing regularly occurred. That being the case, Gerrish devoted significant effort to demonstrating that he conducted a legitimate business that did not truck in stolen wares. He needed buyers and sellers, as well as the community more generally, to trust in his character if he wished to continue his business and compete against the rival auction houses in Boston.

Feb 21 - 2:15:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 15, 1768).

January 31

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

Jan 31 - 1:28:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 28, 1768).

Printed CATALOGUES of the Library of the late Jeremy Gridley, Esq; will be delivered Gratis at the Auction Room.”

In January 1768 auctioneer Joseph Russell deployed multiple media in his efforts to promote a sale devoted to “The LIBRARY of the late Jeremy Gridley, Esq.” He first placed notices in most of the local newspapers, including advertisements that ran in the Massachusetts Gazette on January 21 and in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy on January 25. (He did not place a similar advertisement in the Boston Chronicle. That newspaper had commenced publication only a few months earlier. It featured very few advertisements, an indication that it had not yet attracted significant distribution or readership. Russell may not have considered advertising in that newspaper likely to produce a return on his investment.) Each of these advertisements informed residents of Boston and its environs that Gridley’s library consisting of books on “LAW, HISTORY, DIVINITY, &c.” would be sold “by PUBLIC VENDUE, at the Auction Room in Queen-Street” on the morning of Tuesday, February 2. Notices appeared in multiple newspapers early enough for interested parties to plan to attend the auction.

Russell’s advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette once again on January 28, but this time a second notice on another page supplemented it. That advertisement announced that “printed CATALOGUES of the Library of the late Jeremy Gridley, Esq; will be delivered Gratis at the Action Room” on the day before the auction. The February 1 editions of the other newspapers that carried Russell’s advertisement each updated Russell’s earlier advertisement with some variation that noted readers could obtain an auction catalog for free. The notice in the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, featured at manicule directing attention to “Printed Catalogues may be had at the Auction-Room, gratis.” Russell used one medium to incite interest not only in the books for sale but also to incite interest in another medium marketing those books.

Newspaper notices and auction catalogs may not have been the only advertising media Russell used to garner attention for an upcoming auction. He may have also distributed handbills or posted broadsides around town. Evidence of the auction catalogs appears in his newspaper advertisements even if none of the catalogs survived, but other ephemeral marketing materials may have simply disappeared after the auction. At the very least, Russell’s original and updated advertisements in four newspapers in combination with his auction catalog suggest a coordinated and extensive effort to attract attention and, ultimately, bidders at the sale of Gridley’s library.

April 13

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 13 - 4:13:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (April 13, 1767).

“To be sold by Public Vendue by Elias Dupee”

Auction! This advertisement features a “PUBLIC VENDUE” or auction as the way of purchasing goods. This intrigued me because when I think of auctions I think of auctioneers speaking very quickly, running through prices, and then addressing the person who was the highest bidder. How did this work in the 1760s? What was the purpose of auctions during that time?

T.H Breen provides information regarding auctions during the eighteenth century. He states, “By 1750, they functioned as a major outlet in the great chain of acquisitions.”[1] These auctions, also referred to as vendue sales, provided another method for both consumers and businessmen. They allowed consumers to buy goods that might have been harder to find as well as potentially do so at a lower rate.

Breen also discusses the controversy that lay around auctions. “Defenders insisted that the public auctions represented a marvelous innovation that served the interests of everyone involved.”[2] Opponents, however, argued that, “although the large public auction supplied some small retailers with British imports at lower rates, the properties of larger stores complained about unfair competition.”[3] Auctions provided consumers another means of purchasing goods, some of which were purchased at more reasonabe prices. They also added a different spin on consumerism and business during the eighteenth century.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Shannon explains, vendue sales were a popular method for buying and selling merchandise in eighteenth-century America. In addition to Elias Dupee’s notice about sales by “PUBLIC VENDUE” scheduled to take place in his “New-Auction Room in Royal Exchange Lane” on three afternoons later in the week, readers of the Boston-Post Boy encountered several other advertisements for auctions in the April 13, 1767, issue.

“J. Russell, Auctioneer” inserted multiple notices announcing that he sold various consumer goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE, at the Auction-Room in Queen-Street.” Some of the items up for bid, including “A Variety of House Furniture,” seemed to be secondhand goods. This combination of factors did indeed make a greater variety of goods accessible to greater numbers of consumers: used goods already sold for reduced prices compared to new ones and the variable winning bids at vendue sales sometimes drove those prices even lower. Auctions also reduced prices of popular commodities sold by retailers. One of Russell’s advertisements promoted “A quantity of very good Brown SUGARS, suitable for Shop-keepers or private Families.” Even if consumers did not have a chance to cut out the middleman (or middlewoman, given the number of female shopkeepers in port cities) by attending this auction, they stood to benefit when retailers passed on the savings.

In addition to facilitating commercial transactions, vendue sales were also social events. In an earlier draft, Shannon imagined residents of Boston gathering to bid on items of interest and interacting with each other in the process. This created a very different atmosphere for shopping than the customers of Frederick William Geyer, John Gillespie, and Susanna Renken – all of whom advertised their shops in the same issue of the Boston Post-Boy – experienced in one-on-one transactions with shopkeepers. Earlier this week Shannon argued that the consumer revolution was fueled in part by competition among colonists. Displaying possessions, she asserted, made consumption a public practice. Participating in auctions also became a social ritual, one that made the process of buying and selling a communal, rather than private, experience.

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[1] T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 140.

[2] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 141.

[3] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 142.