What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers.”
Philip Potter placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce that “he has just opened a Shop, and received a great Variety of fashionable English and India Goods.” In the process of promoting his own wares, Potter made reference to other shopkeepers in the city.
To help potential customers find his shop, Potter indicated that it was located “AT THE WEST END OF THE GREAT BRIDGE, AND NEAR Messrs. BLACK and STEWART.” While this may have called attention to a competitor (who happened to advertise on the following page of the same issue), the public’s familiarity with Black and Stewart and where they kept shop may have outweighed any risk of giving them free publicity. After all, Potter’s new shop would fail if customers could not find it, making it necessary to refer to prominent landmarks in an era before standardized street numbers.
Potter also mentioned two shopkeepers in North Providence, proclaiming that “he will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers, or any other Person in this Town.” Merchants and shopkeepers commonly promised potential customers that they offered the best prices, but rarely did they single out specific competitors for special notice. For their part, Benjamin and Edward Thurber had previously advertised that their prices were “as low as any Person in this or the neighboring Towns, or in North-America.” They made a bold claim to the lowest prices on the continent, but they did not name any of their competitors. Did Potter refer to them because they had indeed established a reputation among consumers for particularly low prices? In promoting his own shop, did he also acknowledge the Thurbers as the shopkeepers most likely to offer great deals for shoppers? Did Potter give voice to a general sentiment among Providence residents? If the Thurbers were indeed known to offer the lowest prices, then Potter used their reputation to his own advantage, provided that he actually matched their prices when customers visited his shop.
Most local readers of the Providence Gazette would have been familiar with the commercial landscape of their city. Rather than pretend that his competitors did not exist, Potter mobilized general knowledge about their businesses to attract customers to his own shop.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A LARGE and general Assortment of English and India Goods.”
Today’s advertisement was more of an invitation for customers to peruse the goods being sold at “Benjamin & Edward Thurber’s Shops” as opposed to advertising the actual goods themselves. The advertisement offered a wide variety of imported goods from England, India, and the West Indies, all of which were being sold at low prices and could be purchased cheaply. Note that the advertisement offered goods from India which—while becoming a part of Colonial British rule—was on the other side of the world than the American colonies. Through further research I learned that the American colonists had a more significant economic relation to India than I had previously known.
Jonathan Eacott recently published a book about trade within the British Empire, specifically analyzing how India played a role in the economic development of both Britain and America. According to Thomas R. Metcalf’s review of the book, Eacott indicates that the British initially sought to use India to supply the American colonies with goods, such as spices and textiles, which the Americans might then cultivate themselves. However, due to regional differences this endeavor failed. The English began to enjoy India goods themselves, while also exporting Indian goods to the colonies through the East India Company. When India textiles caused problems for the English at home they banned the importation of the goods in Britain, although the East India Company continued to monopolize the sale of Indian goods in the American colonies.
Americans began to associate the Indian goods with the East India Company, its influence in India, and the tyrannical British control over colonies. This did not, however, halt the importation of Indian luxury goods, which increased after the Revolution.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Sam makes an important observation in noting that this advertisement served as an invitation for prospective customers to visit the Thurbers’ shops and explore the merchandise on their own rather than listing any particular items for sale. Their notice could be divided into two parts, the first of which could run without the second and not look out of the ordinary. The first portion announced they had “JUST IMPORTED” a variety of goods and made some of the most common appeals – quality, choice, price. Indeed, price seemed particularly important to the Thurbers. They opened by stating that they sold their ware “Cheap” and concluded the first part of the advertisement by pronouncing that they offered “the very lowest Prices.”
The Thurbers then devoted the second (and lengthier) section to convincing potential customers that they did indeed sell their merchandise at low prices. Most eighteenth-century advertisers who made appeals to price quite simply inserted phrases about “reasonable rates” or “low prices.” Some elaborated by devoting a sentence or two to their prices. In presenting an entire paragraph to the cost of the goods they sold, however, the Thurbers provided an extraordinarily extensive discussion of their low prices.
They began by noting that they obtained their inventory “much cheaper” than at any time in the past, which in turn allowed them to sell their imported goods “lower than they ever yet sold.” They then made a old pronouncement that compared their prices to others in Providence and throughout the colonies: their prices, the Thurbers “dare presume to say,” were “as low as any Person in this or the neighbouring Towns, or in North-America.”
To underscore their ability to offer low prices, the Thurbers explained that they did not provide the list of goods so common in other eighteenth-century advertisements because they had they made only a “very moderate Profit” and to “enumerate each Particular in an Advertisement” would cancel their small gains as retailers. Joshua Blanchard, a shopkeeper in Boston, made a similar argument in the Massachusetts Gazette two months earlier, though he did not go into such extensive detail. The Thurbers’ objection to lengthy list advertisements raises additional questions about the oversized advertisements they previously published in the Providence Gazette, once again raising suspicions that the printer inserted such advertisements when lacking other content rather than advertisers themselves clamoring to pursue such an innovation.
The Thurbers concluded their advertisement by further extending invitations to potential customers to visit their shops. They even shifted away from the usual use of rather impersonal address, such as “the Public in general, and their former good Customers in particular,” to directly invite readers: “come and look for yourselves,” “you will be kindly and thankfully received,” and “they again invite you to come and trade with them,” and “whatever you want you will not be disappointed.” Low prices did not have to result in impersonal transactions.
 Thomas R. Metcalf, review of Jonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 47, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 579-580.
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“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.