May 29

GUEST CURATOR: Julia Tardugno

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (May 29, 1772).

“The very best of BOHEA TEA.”

This advertisement immediately struck me because tea was such an important symbol during the time of the American Revolution. Parliament’s taxed tea was through the Indemnity Act of 1767, one of the notorious Townshend Acts. When the Townshend Acts went into place, the colonists were so furious that they resorted to nonimportation agreements in which they no longer purchased goods from Britain. On October 28, 1767, a town meeting took place at Faneuil Hall in Boston to discuss the Townshend Acts and their negative impact on the colonies. A broadside distributed after the meeting said that colonists decided to meet “That some effectual Measures might be agreed upon to promote Industry, Economy, and Manufacturers; thereby to prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, which threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin.” This petition to start the nonimportation agreements was voted on unanimously and the residents of Boston listed the items that they vowed not to purchase imported goods. Instead, they would encourage “Manufacturers” in the colonies. That included “Labrador tea.” The colonists felt strongly about implementing the nonimportation agreements at first, but they put an end to the boycotts in 1770 after Parliament repealed most of the taxes on imports. The tax on tea remained. The colonists canceled the nonimportation agreements two years prior to William Elliot’s advertisement about Bohea tea, a popular consumer good. That did not mean that colonists stopped worrying about the taxes on tea. In 1773, they participated in the Boston Tea Party. Tea became an even more important symbol of the American Revolution as a result of the Boston Tea Party, but that is not the whole story.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

William Elliot was not alone in marketing tea to readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette in the spring of 1772.  Jeremiah Libbey listed tea alongside two other beverages, coffee and chocolate, in an advertisement that also promoted an “Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS.”  In another advertisement, David Cutler and J. Cutler provided an extensive list of their “General Assortment of GOODS that came in the last Ships from London.”  The groceries they stocked included “Bohea Tea, Coffee, [and] Chocolate.”  John Penhallow published an even more extensive catalog of “GOODS … Just Imported from LONDON.”  Like his competitors, he sold “choice Bohea Tea.”  Colonizers in Portsmouth and other towns had plenty of options when it came to purchasing tea.  Throughout the colonies, merchants and shopkeepers supplemented their other inventory with tea.

The ubiquity of tea makes it an ideal commodity for examining a variety of interlocking topics in my Revolutionary America class.  We discuss trade and commerce; consumer culture and rituals that helped build a sense of community; and boycotts, politics, and protests.  I introduce students to the traditional narrative about tea and taxes, but we also take into consideration details that complicate that narrative.  As Julia notes, colonizers rescinded the nonimportation agreements when Parliament repealed the duties on most imported goods even though the tax on tea remained in place.  Some colonizers advocated for holding firm until they achieved all of their goals, but most merchants wanted to resume trade and bring an end to the disruption in transatlantic commerce.  We examine how women participated in politics as consumers, especially as consumers of tea, when they made decisions about whether they would purchase imported goods.  In October 1774, women in Edenton, North Carolina, formalized their position by signing a petition in which they resolved to boycott tea and other imported goods.  In response, engraver Philip Dawe created a print that critiqued those women who did not seem to know their place … and, by extension, their male relations incapable of exercising proper authority within their households.  We also read Peter Oliver’s account of the “Origins & Progress” of the American Revolution, including his accusation that women devised various strategies for gathering together to drink tea and cheating on the boycott.  In addition, we discuss T.H. Breen’s descriptions of colonizers destroying tea at public gatherings and enforcing compliance with boycotts.  Many students initially view tea as a quaint vestige of the eighteenth century, associating it primarily with the Boston Tea Party.  Throughout the semester, we repeatedly return to tea so they gain a better understanding of the intersection of colonial culture and politics during the era of the American Revolution.

February 15

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

Providence Gazette (February 15, 1772).

“Choice Bohea Tea, which for Smell and Flavour exceeds almost any ever imported.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the most prominent merchants in Providence in the era of the American Revolution.  The brothers were so successful that in 1772 they built what is now the “earliest extant and most impressive of the cubical, three-story houses that symbolized wealth and social standing in Providence for several generation beginning at the eve of the Revolution,” according to the Providence Preservation Society’s Guide to Providence Architecture.  The building stands at 118 North Main Street (formerly King Street), though its original interiors were removed and installed in several museums a century ago.  In addition, the building “was raised to insert a storefront” in the middle of the nineteenth century, resulting in the original entrance, “taken from the English architectural pattern book Builder’s Compleat Assistant (1750) by Battey Langley,” appearing to adorn the second floor rather than opening onto the street.

The Russells frequently advertised in the Providence Gazette in the 1760s and 1770s.  Perhaps their marketing efforts contributed, at least in part, to their mercantile success.  As they embarked on building their new house in 1772, the brothers advertised a variety of commodities on February 15.  They focused primarily on grocery items in that notice, though in others they promoted a vast array of textile, housewares, hardware, and other goods imported from England.  Among the groceries they offered to consumers, the Russells listed “Nutmegs, Cinnamon, Mace, and Cloves” as well as “Pepper by the Bag” and “Chocolate by the Box.”  They concluded their advertisement with “Choice Bohea Tea.”  Most advertisers did not offer much commentary about that popular commodity, but in this instance the Russells elaborated on what made their tea “Choice” for consumers.  They proclaimed that the “Smell and Flavour exceeds almost any ever imported.”  In conjuring such associations with their tea at the conclusion of their advertisement, the Russells may have incited greater interest in all of the groceries they sold.  Sales of “Choice Bohea Tea” and so many other goods helped finance the house they built in 1772.  The Russells almost certainly enjoyed “Choice Bohea Tea” in the parlor of their new home, partaking in popular social rituals with family and guests.

April 17

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 17 - 4:17:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“BEST London BOHEA TEA”

In this advertisement Henry Appleton promoted “BEST London BOHEA TEA.” According to Rachel Conroy at the Museum of Wales, “In the eighteenth century tea-drinking was a highly fashionable activity for the wealthy upper classes.” The idea that a drink initially denoted the elite is not surprising due to the exotic nature of the beverage. Tea was transported from China to England and then to the colonies, a notably long haul. Conroy also states “The most common tea was Bohea, a type of black tea.”

In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen indicates that tea drinking eventually became popular among a wide variety of social classes. As the eighteenth century progressed, more social classes also began to consume the beverage. To further demonstrate consumption across the classes, Breen brings up the political ramifications of the tea being sold. It became a major “bone of contention” for the colonists because of the new importation taxes on the product as part of the Townsend Acts in 1767. This led to one of the largest boycotts throughout the thirteen colonies and eventually to the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor. This advertisement examplifies how this product was sold far and wide in the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to tea, Henry Appleton sold a variety of grocery items and “West India Good[s]” at “his Shop next Door to Robert Traill” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although he marketed the tea most vigorously – listing it first, describing it as “BEST,” and inserting a nota bene promising that “The above Tea is warranted of the best kind” – Appleton also sold “Loaf Sugar.” Consumers used sugar for many purposes. Sweetening tea was one of them, making it natural that the shopkeeper advertised the two together.

Jonathan mentions the political controversies that coalesced around tea in the decade before the Revolution. Colonists objected to new taxes and enforcement mechanisms, decrying their loss of liberty at the hands of Parliament. More than any other commodity, historians use tea to tell a powerful story of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution. In recent years many scholars have widened the scope of that story, effectively linking tea to other commodities associated with it, especially the “Loaf Sugar” that Appleton simultaneously peddled.

Consumers in colonial New Hampshire were fairly far removed from slavery practiced on the same scale as in the Chesapeake, Lower South, and Caribbean. A relatively small number of slaves lived in their towns (including “A likely Negro GIRL” offered for sale in an advertisement in the column to the right of Appleton’s notice), but the economy of colonial New Hampshire did not rely on the cultivation of staple crops on plantations, cultivation made possible by the productive labor of slaves.

Even though that was the case, colonists in New Hampshire were bound up in the system of slavery through commerce and their choices as consumers. The sugar they used to sweeten the tea they coveted resulted from the involuntary labor of enslaved men and women on faraway plantations. The social rituals that emanated from purchasing tea and ancillary goods, such as elaborate tea sets, rested on a foundation of enslaved labor in the cultivation of sugar. Even as Americans clamored for liberty in the face of Parliament meddling in colonial commerce, their consumer choices maintained an economic system that denied liberty to enslaved men and women who produced some of their most valued commodities.

 

November 3

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

nov-3-1131766-connecticut-courant
Connecticut Courant (November 3, 1766).

“Choice Bohea Tea.”

In this notice in the Connecticut Courant, William Lamson advertised different goods, such as “Bohea Tea,” “Cod Fish,” and “Black Barcelona Handkerchiefs.” Lamson sold his goods at the stores of Ebenezer Bernard in Hartford and Oliver Pomeroy at Rockey-Hill.

Drinking tea was an important part of colonial life. Drinking tea was a symbol of status in England; this was true in colonial society also. According to Rodris Roth, “During the first half of the eighteenth century the limited amount of tea, available at prohibitively high prices, restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the population. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased, due in part to the propaganda and merchandising efforts of the East India Company.”[1] (Bohea tea, a category of black and oolong teas, originates from China. The East India Company acquired it and distributed it to England and the colonies.) As tea became more accessible more people were able to buy it and partake in the social rituals of drinking tea.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

William Lamson’s advertisement for tea, codfish, handkerchiefs, sugar, and mackerel included a rather unique feature. He included a price for each of the items listed. Eighteenth-century advertisements rarely included prices. Advertisers that hawked only one or two commodities sometimes indicated their prices. Shopkeepers occasionally named a price for one or two items included in their lengthy lists of merchandise. It was rare, however, for any advertisement to match a price to every item offered for sale.

Lamson made it possible for potential customers to engage in comparison shopping more easily. He depended on readers remembering their recent purchases and having some general familiarity with the prices local shopkeepers charged for the popular commodities he sold. Many potential customers likely would have known at a glance if Lamson offered good deals. That made it unnecessary for him to resort to one of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertising, emphasizing low prices. Lamson did not need to underscore that these were low prices; readers would have made that determination on their own. Lamson also cultivated a sense of trust with prospective customers by letting them know in advance what they could expect to spend when they purchased any of these commodities from him.

On the other hand, Lamson may have also had some practical reasons for listing specific prices. As Ceara noted, he sold tea, sugar, and other goods “At Mr. Ebenezer Barnard’s in Hartford, and at Mr. Oliver Pomeroy’s at Rockey-Hill.” Lamson may never have been present at either location; instead, Bernard and Pomeroy may have sold his commodities on commission or by some other arrangement. By indicating specific prices, Lamson eliminated the possibility that potential customers would have to haggle with a third party. Lamson did not need to be present for transactions or empower agents to act on his behalf. His advertisement, with prices plainly indicated, could stand in on his behalf.

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[1] Rodris Roth, “Tea Drinking in Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 442.