GUEST CURATOR: Sean Duda
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds.”
In this advertisement for seeds Benjamin Coats mentioned beans, peas, carrots, and many other vegetables. Gardening was a common practice in the colonies, and it was often women who kept the gardens for their families. In As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans, Stephanie Grauman Wolf also uses advertisements about seeds to examine life in eighteenth-century America, including an advertisement from a Boston newspapers in 1748. She states, “The purchase of seeds involved women in a wider world of commerce than we might have supposed, and this involvement included selling extra produce.” Gardening was one of the outlets that women used to interact with the wider world of trade in the eighteenth century. Wolf also notes that certain plants were more popular regionally: “Pease for ‘English pease porridge’ were supplanted by beans for “baked beans” in New England.” She also notes that potatoes and tomatoes were popular in the northern colonies, while sweet potatoes were popular in the southern colonies.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
When readers of the Essex Gazette finished perusing Benjamin Coats’s advertisement for a “fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds” they almost immediately encountered the same inventory listed in Susanna Renken’s advertisement, published in the same column just two advertisements below. Coats and Renken did not merely offer similar wares. The copy of their advertisements was identical, with the exception of their names, the locations of their shops, and a short addendum to Renken’s advertisement that announced she “Also [had] a Box of China Ware to sell.” Coats sold his seeds locally, “Near the School-House in SALEM,” but Renken attempted to enlarge her share of the market for seeds she sold “In Fore-street, near the Draw-Bridge, BOSTON.” The lists of seeds Coats and Renken offered for sale were identical, both in content and order. Purveyors of goods often began their advertisements by acknowledging the origins, often deploying formulaic language that included the names of the vessel and captain that had transported the goods to the local port. In this case, Coats and Renken used exactly the same language: “Imported in Capt. Hulme from LONDON, and to be sold by …”
How did two advertisers end up publishing virtually identical copy? Examining the publication history of the advertisements provides some clues. Both advertisements first appeared in the Essex Gazette on March 14, 1769, and ran again on March 21 and 28. Prior to that, Renken’s advertisement ran in three Boston newspapers. It first appeared in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on February 27, without the note about “China Ware,” and then continued weekly in each of those newspapers (March 6, 13, 20, and 27). It did not run in the Boston Post-Boy (published concurrently with Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette) until March 6, a week after it first appeared in the other newspapers, but after that it also ran every week for the rest of the month. That one included the note about “China Ware,” suggesting that Renken may have clipped it from that newspaper and submitted it to the Essex Gazette with instructions to publish it without alteration.
Renken’s advertisement ran in newspapers printed in Boston and distributed far beyond that city eight times before she and Coats published nearly identical advertisements in the Essex Gazette. Coats certainly had plenty of opportunities to see the advertisement and either clip it or copy it to transform into an advertisement intended for his local newspaper. This would have been a particularly efficient means of generating copy if Renken had been his supplier, especially if he did not realize that she planned to expand her marketing campaign beyond Boston’s newspapers. Alternately, if both Coats and Renken dealt with the same commercial seed suppliers from England, they could have both copied from letters or printed lists provided by correspondents on the other side of the Atlantic. That does not explain, however, the time that elapsed between Renken’s first advertisement in Boston and Coats’s advertisement in the Essex Gazette two weeks later.
For the past several years Renken had aggressively advertised garden seeds in Boston’s newspapers in the spring. The Essex Gazette commenced publication in August 1768, making the spring of 1769 the first time that Renken could also advertise in that newspaper. Perhaps she initially overlooked it as a new option. If she did sell seeds wholesale to Coats for resale in Salem, that might have prompted her to think about better addressing the market for her merchandise in the nearby town. In that case, Coats probably would not have been pleased to see her advertisement appear simultaneously with his in his local newspaper, but he did have the advantage of proximity to prospective customers in Salem. Neither of them apparently felt so concerned about the similarities between their advertisements that they found it necessary to submit revisions for further insertions. Cooperation and competition between Coats and Renken seemed to exist side by side as their advertisements appeared one above the other.
 Stephanie Grauman Wolf, As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans (New York: harper Perennial, 1994), 90.
 Wolf, As Various as Their Land, 89.