January 9

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

Jan 9 - 1:9:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 9, 1768).

“At their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.”

Benjamin Thurber and Daniel Cahoon informed residents of Providence and its hinterland that they had formed a partnership in an advertisement that ran in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1767. In their initial notice the shopkeepers emphasized their retail space, trumpeting that they “have built and compleated the best and largest Shop and Store in Providence.” They also proclaimed that they had “furnished it with a very large and general Assortment of the very best of English and India Piece Goods, Hard Ware, all Sorts of West-India Goods, and Groceries of all Kinds.”

In their subsequent advertising Thurber and Cahoon turned to demonstrating the extent of their inventory, listing dozens of items available for purchase “at their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.” Just as they claimed to operate the largest shop in town, their advertisement occupied the most space in the January 9, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, although it had been rivaled by Jonathan Russell’s advertisement in the previous issue. Thurber and Cahoon may have been motivated, in part, by Russell’s lengthy advertisement and its extended run in their local newspaper. It commenced in mid November, shortly after they announced their partnership, and continued for eight weeks, disappearing from the pages of the Providence Gazette after the first issue of the new year. Thurber and Cahoon may have determined that they needed to place an advertisement of similar length to challenge Russell and to remind potential customers of the size of their shop, supposedly the largest in Providence.

Their advertisement extended nearly three-quarters of a column, twice the length of the next longest advertisement in the January 9 issue. It also featured unique typography. Rather than list their wares in a single continuous and dense paragraph, they instead enumerated one or tow items per line and created two narrower columns within the single column that contained their advertisement. Not only did this typographical strategy make their notice appear even longer, it may have conjured up rows of shelves in their shop, suggesting how much space Thurber and Cahoon made available for customers to leisurely browse through their merchandise. By comparison, the other advertisements in the same issue looked much more cramped, implying that their shops were equally crowded and difficult to navigate.

Thurber and Cahoon used the amount of space on the page and design elements to their advantage when they placed their advertisement in the Providence Gazette. Although they echoed many of the same appeals to price, quality, and service that appeared in other commercial notices, the typography set their advertisement apart and buttressed the claims they made to potential customers.

October 31

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

Oct 31 - 10:31:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 31, 1767).

“Have built and completed the best and largest Shop and Store in Providence.”

Benjamin Thurber and Daniel Cahoon placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce that “they have entered into Copartnership in all their mercantile Business.” The new partners operated a store that stocked “a very large and general Assortment of the very best of English and India Piece Goods, Hard Ware, all Sorts of West-India Goods, and Groceries of all Kinds.” They advanced some of the most common marketing strategies that appeared in eighteenth-century advertising – consumer choice, price, quality – but they also incorporated other appeals to distinguish their notice from others.

Merchants and shopkeepers rarely commented on their shops as retail spaces in newspaper advertisements, choosing instead to focus on their merchandise or personal attributes that qualified them to serve customers. Thurber and Cahoon, however, mentioned their location “at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes” at the north end of Providence before launching any of the many other appeals in their advertisement. “[F]or the better accommodating their Customers,” they proclaimed, they “have built and completed the best and largest Shop and Store in Providence.” Considering the range of imported goods in their inventory, Thurber and Cahoon needed adequate space to store and display their stock. Yet operating the “largest Shop and Store” in town had other advantages. It presumably allowed customers sufficient room to examine the merchandise and to move throughout the establishment freely. By implication, their competitors occupied small and crowded spaces that detracted from the overall experience.

Thurber and Cahoon invited potential customers “to come and look for themselves” at their shop, promising the “greatest welcome.” Here customer service intersected with the amenities of the retail space to create an environment in which patrons would experience “Pleasure” even as they “lay out their Money.” The partners predicted that their customers would “chearfully” make purchases, in part because they so enjoyed shopping at the “best and largest Shop and Store” in Providence. In the nineteenth century department stores marketed themselves as palaces of consumption. Thurber and Cahoon’s advertisement anticipated that strategy approximately a century before it became a standard aspect of selling the shopping experience to customers.

March 1

GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney

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

mar-1-2281767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (February 28, 1767).

“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.[1] 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.

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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.

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[1] 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.

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.