April 4

GUEST CURATOR: Aidan Griffin

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

Essex Gazette (April 4, 1769).

“His usual Assortment of West-India and English GOODS.”

British goods were popular in the colonies because Britain was the mother country. Colonists often preferred British products over American ones as they were better quality. British products became so popular that the colonists became British in a process that T.H. Breen calls the Anglicization of consumer culture. However, something happened that made British goods fall out of favor. “Parliament managed to politicize these consumer goods,” Breen states, “and when it did so, manufactured items suddenly took on a radical, new symbolic function.”[1] When this happened, no patriotic American would admit to buying any British goods because buying British goods was seen as unpatriotic at best and traitorous at worst. By watching who bought which goods, the colonists could find other patriots and determine who were loyalists. Colonists who were neutral could not remain neutral, as they were almost always forced to pick a side when making decisions about what to buy. The consumer revolution came before the American Revolution and became part of that movement. Breen argues that it was important for the Revolution to succeed since it gave the colonists common concerns about the politics of buying consumer goods.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to promoting the “usual Assortment of West-India and English GOODS” in this advertisement, Francis Symonds also invited “both Gentlemen and Ladies” to enjoy the entertainment at “the BELL, near SALEM.” The Bell, named for the wooden sign in the shape of a bell that Symonds used to identify his establishment, was one of the most popular taverns in the vicinity, according to D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Essex County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men.

Published in 1888, Hurd’s History of Essex County identifies several events from the era of the American Revolution associated with the Bell. “Here was the appointed rallying place of the minute-men of the Revolution,” Hurd proclaims, “and from this corner they started out across the fields on their hurried march to Lexington.” Not long after, “the regiment commanded by Col. Timothy Pickering halted for refreshment” at the Bell “on the way to Bunker Hill.”

As notable as Hurd considered these events, one other captured my interest: “It was at the Bell tavern that the heroine of the novel, ‘Eliza Wharton, or the Coquette,’ … spent her last days and gathered about the tragic ending of her unfortunate life a veil of mystery and romance which long gave her a place among the memories of the simple and kindly villagers.” Hurd referred to Hannah Foster’s The Coquette (1797), one of the most popular American novels of the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, Hurd claimed Foster’s novel was “a work almost forgotten, but of great interest to a former generation.”[2] The Coquette is anything but “almost forgotten” today. This morality tale is standard reading for anyone interested in early American literature or the history of the early republic, especially the histories of women, gender, and sexuality during the era. Scholars in these fields have recovered Foster’s work in the time since Hurd compiled his History of Essex County in 1888.

This provides an excellent example for students in my Revolutionary America class, the same students currently serving as guest curators, of the sort of primary source that may have been overlooked at one time but now, as the result of asking new kinds of questions and expanding the scope of our study of the past, provides valuable insights into life in early America. This is especially important to me as I strive to achieve one of my goals for my Revolutionary America course. I crosslist the course with the Women’s Studies Program and make a commitment to incorporating the experiences and perspectives of women from diverse backgrounds. It just so happens that Aidan selected an advertisement featuring the Bell Tavern on the same day we are discussing Linda Kerber’s classic “Republic Mother”[3] and Mary Beth Sievens’s “Female Consumerism and Household Authority in Early National New England,”[4] drawing lines both historical and historiographical from one to the other. In preparation for the class, I prepared primary sources and an overview of The Coquette to enrich our conversations. It was serendipity indeed that Aidan selected an advertisement related to The Coquette to examine today.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 76.

[2] D. Hamilton Hurd, History of Essex County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis and Company, 1888), 1021.

[3] Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment – An American Perspective,” American Quarterly 28, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 187-205.

[4] Mary Beth Sievens, “Female Consumerism and Household Authority in Early National New England,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 353-371.