July 11

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

Jul 11 - 7:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 11, 1767).

“They have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.”

No publicity is bad publicity. That may have been the sentiment that motivated Black and Stewart when they placed this advertisement in the Providence Gazette. As part of their attempt to market tea, rum, molasses, and sugar, the partners aired their dirty laundry in the public prints.

Black and Stewart did not go into the particulars of what had transpired, but they did inform readers “that through the Knavery of some, and Collusion of others, they have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.” Perhaps in a town the size of Providence it was not necessary to go into more detail. Black and Stewart may have been referencing a tale that local readers already knew, gossip that had already spread. They may have felt that acknowledging their difficulties presented the better path than trying to pretend that the unfortunate situation did not exist.

At the same time, the partners also attempted to generate sympathy for their plight. Even if readers did not know the specifics, they could still be moved that Black and Stewart “stand in Need of Cash.” The shopkeepers first emphasized their own needs and how they would benefit from commercial transactions, but then they pivoted to stress the benefits accrued to potential customers who chose to patronize their business. They noted that competitors “sell some Goods below Prime Cost” (perhaps as what would be called loss leaders today), prompting Black and Stewart to offer discounted prices on several popular items. To aid potential customers in comparison shopping, they listed prices for tea, rum, molasses, and sugar. They also issued a guarantee on the tea, which was “warranted good” but would be “taken back and the Money returned” if customers were not satisfied. If they could get customers though the door to purchase these items, some might also make selections from among the “Variety of English and West-India Goods” they also stocked.

Some readers may have found the story of Black and Stewart’s difficulties untoward, but the shopkeepers gambled that they could mobilize their tale of woe to attract customers. They portrayed their disappointments in business as opportunities for customers to benefit from lower prices. The marketplace could be cruel, but this afforded consumers victories on occasion. Black and Stewart invited potential customers to take advantage of their misfortunes, giving unspoken assurances that they could trust the deals were real since the shopkeepers were in such dire straits.

April 12

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 12 - 4:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 11, 1767).

“Pork, Rice, and Indigo”

The Not-So-Bare Necessities! As we can see in this advertisement, newspapers were a prime place for merchants to advertise popular goods. Items ranging from necessary food ingredients, such as flour and rice, all the way to saws and steel were advertised and accessible to customers in the colonies. However, purchasing these items meant more than just having something of worth; purchasing these items sometimes also had added political and social connotations.

The consumer culture seen in this advertisement was present not only in Providence but also throughout the colonies. The historians at Colonial Williamsburg indicate that one of the main contributors to this was the fact that colonists had more money by the middle of the eighteenth century than they previously did. They could then purchase items, such as indigo, as a luxury because they had money left over after purchasing their basic necessities. It was a luxury to have more items, but this also made for a better reputation. If colonists could show that they could purchase things beyond just the necessities, it must mean that they have some form of disposable wealth. However, this could be misleading, especially with the rise of credit, which allowed individuals to purchase items without having the money upfront to pay for them. The rise of the use of credit as well as competition to display status both gave way the purchasing of goods beyond just basics that was part of the consumer revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

For the past several months, the Adverts 250 Project has tracked the relative scarcity of advertising that appeared in the Providence Gazette, compared to newspapers published in other port cities, during the winter of 1766 and 1767. With the arrival of spring, the number and total column space increased, including today’s advertisement from Black and Stewart. This advertisement, however, was not the only notice that Black and Stewart placed in the April 11, 1767, issue of the Providence Gazette. The partners inserted a second notice announcing that they wished to acquire “the best Kind of Hogshead Hoops, Red Oak Hogshead Staves, and Yellow Pine Boards.”

A single advertiser placing two separate notices concerning the exchange of goods or commodities in one issue was relatively rare in the late 1760s, at least as far as those outside the book trades were concerned. Printers frequently filled the pages of their own publications with multiple advertisements, a privilege of operating the press, but merchants, shopkeepers, and others buying and selling goods tended to limit themselves to just one advertisement at a time. Some certainly revised the copy or submitted new advertisements to made sure they always had a presence in the public prints, but usually not multiple notices per issue. A few departed from this general rule, mostly in the major port cities of Boston and Charleston.

That made Black and Stewart’s multiple advertisements all the more notable. In the space of just a couple of months, the Providence Gazette shifted from including virtually no advertising (except notices inserted by the printers) to featuring more than one notice placed by the same advertisers. While the significance of this example should not be exaggerated, it is worth noting that advertisers beyond the largest urban centers adopted a practice previously only identified in major port cities, places where multiple newspapers competed for readers and advertisers. Although newspapers printed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston provide the most plentiful examples of advertising in the 1760s, entrepreneurs in other places also experimented with format and frequency as they developed their own marketing strategies.

February 7

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

feb-7-271767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (February 7, 1767).

“A Few Firkins of good Butter.”

Black and Smith placed this advertisement in order to obtain consumer goods rather than to market their own wares to potential customers. They did not specify what they intended to do with “A Few Firkins of good Butter” and “a small Quantity of Lump” butter. Instead they invited anyone who could supply these commodities to “enquire … at their Shop.” Black and Smith did not seek to entice potential customers to visit their shop by listing the variety of goods they stocked or guaranteeing low prices or making appeals concerning quality or fashion. Perhaps they felt that they already did brisk business and did not need to invest in marketing.

In their call for “good Butter,” the partners used a unit of measurement largely unfamiliar to modern Americans, though craft beer enthusiasts may recognize the firkin as a cask that contains one quarter of a barrel. In the colonial era, however, a firkin might be used to measure beer by volume or it might be used to measure butter and cheese by weight. For the latter, a firkin was equivalent to fifty-six pounds.

The term firkin testifies to the networks of trade that linked European nation-states to each other as well as locations throughout the Atlantic world. According to Russ Rowlett, “The unit is of Dutch origin, and its name is based on the Dutch word vier for four.” That makes sense and seems quite appropriate considering that a firkin was equivalent to four stone when measuring butter or cheese by weight or one quarter of a barrel when measuring beer and other liquids by volume.

Units of measurement used in colonial America may seem quaint and confusing when encountered by modern readers, but colonists recognized them just as easily as (and, in some cases, more easily than) modern consumers distinguish among short, tall, grande, and venti beverages at a popular coffee retailer.