September 30

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 30, 1771).

“A very large Assortment of Winter Goods.”

Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers consisted text unadorned with images, though some did feature woodcuts depicting ships, houses, enslaved people, horses, or, even less frequently, shop signs.  Despite the lack of images, advertisers and compositors sometimes experimented with graphic design in order to draw attention to newspaper notices.  Some of those efforts were rather rudimentary.  In the September 30, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, Hopestill Capen’s name served as the headline for his advertisement.  That was not unusual, but the size of the font was.  Larger than the names of any other merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in that issue, the size of Capen’s name demanded attention for his advertisement.  Thomas Lee pursued a similar strategy with a headline proclaiming “SILKS” in a large font.

Capen and Lee may or may not have consulted with the printer or compositor about those elements of their advertisements.  They may have submitted the copy and left the design to the compositor.  Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, almost certainly gave instructions or even spoke with the compositor concerning the unique format of his advertisement.  The text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle, distinguishing it from anything else that appeared in the pages of the Boston Evening-Post.  Deblois hawked a “very large Assortment of Winter Goods, with every other Kind imported from Great-Britain.”  In so doing, he used formulaic language that appeared in countless other advertisements in the 1760s and early 1770s.  Yet he devised a way to make his message more interesting and noticeable.  That likely required a greater investment on his part.  Advertisers usually paid for the amount of space their notices occupied, not by the word, but in this case setting type at an angle required extraordinary work on the part of the compositor.  Reorienting Deblois’s advertisement was not merely a matter of selecting a larger font, incorporating more white space, or including ornamental type for visual interest.

Deblois carried many of the same goods as Capen, Caleb Blanchard, and Nathan Frazier, all of them competitors who placed much longer advertisements listing the many items among their merchandise.  Rather than confront consumers with the many choices available to them at his shop, Deblois instead opted to incite interest for his “large Assortment of Winter Good” using graphic design to draw attention to his advertising copy.  The unique format of his advertisement made it stand out among the dozens that appeared in that issue of the Boston Evening-Post.

September 9

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 9, 1771).

“He has invented an HAIR-ROLL upon an entire new Construction.”

In the 1770s, fashionable women preferred a towering hairstyle known as the high roll.  Their high hair testified that they had the leisure time to maintain the style and the means to hire hairdressers or maids to assist in achieving the style.  While some women with high rolls wore wigs, most arranged their own hair around pads and rollers, sometimes embellished with plumes, ribbons, hats, or other adornments.  Women wore high rolls to assert status, but they also became targets of critics who condemned luxury and the corrupting influences sometimes associated with consumer culture in the eighteenth century.

William Warden, a wigmaker who kept shop on King Street in Boston, attempted to catch the attention of prospective customers with an advertisement “To the LADIES” in the September 9, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  He promoted a product that he invented to aid women in achieving the style while also making high hair more comfortable to wear.  Warden proclaimed that he “invented an HAIR-ROLL upon an entire new Construction,” one that weighed significantly less than those made and sold by his competitors.  The wigmaker estimated that most “Rolls in common use weigh from Seven to Ten Ounces, whereas those he makes do not exceed Three.”  Warden did not believe that he needed to provide further recommendation for his product.  “The Advantages of a light Roll over a heavy one,” he declared, “are so obvious that it would be affrontive to the Understanding to point them out.”  Women who wore the style may have been delighted to learn of hair rollers that were easier to balance and put less strain on their necks.

According to Warden, being fashionable did not mean having to be uncomfortable, or at least not as uncomfortable as most hair rolls made the women who wore them.  He invited women to give his new product a try, giving them access to a popular fashion, the high roll, without experiencing some of the disadvantages often associated with it.

September 4

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 2, 1771).

“Public Vendue, At the Auction-Room in Queen street.”

Colonial consumers encountered advertisements for all sorts of goods when they perused the pages of the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers.  In the September 2, 1771, edition, for instance, Samuel Austin advertised “A large and compleat Assortment of English, India and Scotch Goods” recently imported from London.  Similarly, Joshua Gardner hawked “A fine Assortment of Fall and Winter Goods” received in vessels from London and Bristol.  Several other merchants and shopkeepers placed advertisements for new merchandise available at their stores and warehouses.

Consumers, however, had other options for acquiring goods.  Some preferred to purchase at vendue or auction where they might get better bargains than buying retail.  Joseph Russell, proprietor of “the Auction-Room in Queen street,” regularly placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and other local newspapers to advise consumers of items soon up for bids.  In a notice that ran next to Austin’s advertisement, Russell promoted “A great Variety of English GOODS.”  He listed several different kinds of textiles as well as “Silk & linen Handkerchiefs” and “Mens & Womens worsted Hose,” many of the same items that Austin, Gardner, and others enumerated in their advertisements.  He concluded that litany with a promise of “a variety of other Goods,” encouraging prospective bidders to check out his auction before shopping elsewhere.

Russell also facilitated the market for secondhand goods, advertising an upcoming auction “At the House of Mr. Benjamin White.”  In particular, that auction featured “A Variety of HOUSE FURNITURE belonging to a Gentleman moved into the Country,” including a clock, a mahogany bureau, and looking glasses.  The inventory also included housewares, such as “a compleat Set of Burnt China for Tea-Table” and brass kettles.  Purchasing secondhand goods at auction or estate sales provided consumers an alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution.  Collectively, advertisements placed by merchants, shopkeepers, and auctioneers alerted colonists to the many options available to them and the multiple trajectories for shopping and obtaining goods of all sorts.

August 19

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

Boston Evening-Post (August 19, 1771).

“Will make as good Allowance to Travelling Traders, &c. as if purchased of the Printer.”

A portion of the commencement exercises at Harvard in 1771 generated such enthusiasm in some quarters and outrage in others that printer Ezekiel Russell decided to publish Andrew Croswell’s “Brief Remarks on the Satyrical Drollery at Cambridge, last COMMENCEMENT DAY; with special Reference to the Character of STEPHEN the PREACHER; which raised such extravagant Mirth.”  (Read the British Museum’s copy.)  For those who attended the event, this publication served as a counterbalance to the “vain laughter, and clapping” that “gave great offence” (at least to Croswell).  For others who had not heard the “Satyrical Drollery” and witnessed “such extravagant Mirth,” the pamphlet gave them an opportunity to learn more about what had transpired, though through the lecturing tone of a critic who had not appreciated the behavior he saw exhibited at the commencement.  For Russell, this represented an opportunity to generate revenues and increase foot traffic in his shop.

Yet Russell’s shop on Marlborough Street in Boston was not the only location where consumers could acquire copies of the pamphlet.  An advertisement in the August 19, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post advised that they “may likewise be had at KNOX’S LONDON BOOK-STORE, in Cornhill.”  Henry Knox, the bookseller who later became a senior general in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the new nation’s first Secretary of War, had recently placed his own advertisements in the city’s newspapers.  In addition, residents of Newburyport and the surrounding towns could instead visit B. Emerson, who stocked a limited number of copies.  The following day, and advertisement in the Essex Gazette advised readers in Salem that Samuel Hall also sold the pamphlet.

Russell also envisioned other means of distribution.  In his advertisement, he indicated that Knox “will make as good Allowance to Travelling Traders, &c. as if purchased of the Printer.”  In other words, itinerant peddlers as well as booksellers and shopkeepers received discounts for buying in volume for the purposes of retailing to their own customers.  Knox offered them the same prices they would have otherwise received by purchasing directly from Russell.  The printer and his associates worked together to incite demand by disseminating copies of the pamphlet and offering deals to retailers.  The newspaper advertisement alerted prospective customers to three locations that carried the “Brief Remarks,” but also encouraged them to ask for it from “Travelling Traders” and others who might have also added it to their inventories.

July 24

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

Boston Evening-Post (July 24, 1771).

“Brown Sugars of various Qualities.”

Like most advertisements that ran in eighteenth-century newspapers, Joseph Barrell’s notice in the July 22, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post consisted entirely of text unadorned with images.  That did not mean, however, that Barrell did not deploy graphic design to his advantage.  In listing dozens of commodities available at his store, he adopted a unique format that distinguished his advertisement from others in the newspaper.  Barrell centered his text, producing a distinctive amount of white space compared to other notices.

Consider the most common configurations for enumerating goods in advertisements.  Both styles appeared on the same page as Barrell’s notice.  In the first, the most common, advertisers listed items in dense paragraphs of text with both the left and right side justified with the margins.  This gave such advertisements some visual heft, communicating to prospective customers that the advertisers carried vast assortments of goods, but it also made those advertisements more difficult to read compared to the second option.  Some advertisers decided to divide their notices into columns, listing only one or two items per line.  That method also yielded blank space that made it easier for readers to navigate those advertisement, but it meant that purveyors of goods could not list as many items in the same amount of space.  Charles Dabney utilized the first method for his “general Assortment of English and India GOODS” in an advertisement about as long as it was wide, one that featured very little blank space.  William Scott’s advertisement for a “Variety of English and Scotch Goods” was just as dense and perhaps even more difficult to read since it extended more than twice the length of Dabney’s notice and listed many more items available at his shop.  John Head, on the other hand, resorted to columns for his commodities.  In an advertisement that occupied about as much space as Dabney’s, he listed far fewer items.

Readers readily recognized both formats, but that was not the case for Barrell’s advertisement.  Compositors often centered the first couple of lines of advertisements, the introductory materials that gave the advertiser’s name and location, but rarely did they center the contents in the body of the advertisement.  That made Barrell’s advertisement unique, likely drawing the eyes of readers.  Barrell did not offer goods that differed much from those available in other shops, nor did he make appeals to price or quality that differed from those advanced by other advertisers.  His advantage in communicating with prospective customers derived from the graphic design elements of his advertisement.

July 15

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

Boston Evening-Post (July 15, 1771).

“Buy worth a Dollar, when you come, / And you may drink a Glass of Rum.”

Lydia Learned received some free advertising in the July 15, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  She distributed a handbill that listed a variety of items available at her shop “Near the Sign of the Punch-Bowl” in Brookline.  Intrigued by the advertisement, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, inserted it in its entirety along with a note advising, “The following advertisement, copied from one in the Punch Bowl Tavern in Brookline, we publish for the Amusement of out Poetical Readers.”  Indeed, the poetry, not the assortment of goods offered for sale, attracted their attention.  Few advertisers attempted to transform their inventory into poetry in newspaper notices or on broadsides and handbills, helping to make Learned’s advertisement more memorable.

Her poetry featured three stanzas of four lines each, the second and fourth lines rhyming.  Learned devoted the first stanza entirely to her wares:  “FLOUR, Raisons, Rice, Molosses, Spice, / Good Indigo and Wire, / Knives[,] Combs, Fish-hooks, Verses and Books, / And Paper by the Quire.”  In the remaining stanzas, she used the final line to make appeals to prospective customers.  In the second, for instance, she listed “Sugar[,] Bisket and Chocolate, / Tinn, Glass and Earthen-ware, / Pins, Needles[,] Thread and Ginger-bread, / As good as any where.”  Her shop may have been humble compared to the larger enterprises operated by other entrepreneurs, but Learned assured prospective customers that the size of her business did not negatively affect the quality of her merchandise.  In the final stanza, she offered an additional incentive to shoppers.  “Salt, Allum, Coffee, Tea, and Snuff, / Crown-Soap and Candles, cheap enough / Buy worth a Dollar when you come, / And you may drink a glass of RUM.”  Perhaps the nip of alcohol as much as the poetry amused the Fleets and convinced them to reprint Learned’s handbill in their newspapers.

Learned was not the only entrepreneur to have the text from a trade card or billhead also printed in an eighteenth-century newspaper.  On May 5, 1768, Mary Symonds, a milliner in Philadelphia, ran a lengthy advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  In it, she listed dozens of items among her inventory.  She also distributed a trade card that reiterated, with minor variations, the text from the newspaper advertisement.  In October and November 1770, she recorded a receipted bill for items purchased by the Cadwalader family on the reverse, suggesting that Symonds kept her trade card in circulation for some time.

Symonds seems to have made a more intentional effort than Learned when it came to deploying advertisements in multiple formats.  All the same, Learned demonstrated creativity in devising a billhead that distinguished her business from her competitors.  If prospective customers did not appreciate the poetry, then the promise of a glass of rum offered as a premium for making a purchase may have convinced them to check out her merchandise.

Lydia Learned, Trade Card, ca. 1771. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

June 24

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

Boston Evening-Post (June 24, 1771).

“Jackson’s Variety Store.”

William Jackson competed with many merchants and shopkeepers in his efforts to sell a “large & elegant Assortment of European, India and Hard Ware Goods.”  In an advertisement in the June 24, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, he made appeals to price and consumer choice, but he also incorporated two marketing strategies not as frequently deployed by advertisers in eighteenth-century America.

The first enhanced his appeal to consumer choice.  Rather than his name serving as the only headline, the first line declared, “Jackson’s Variety Store.”  Most wholesalers and retailers identified their stores and shops only by their own names, though many displayed signs that became synonymous with the businesses they marked.  Among other merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in the same issue of the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, John Barrett and Sons, Edward Church, Henry Leddel, Richard Salter, and William Smith associated only their names with their shops.  Jackson mentioned his shop sign, the Brazen Head, in his advertisement, but made his marketing even more distinctive by giving his store a second name, one not associated with the icon that marked its location.  In so doing, he replicated the example of Gerardus Duyckinck, who for some time had been advertising his “Universal Store, Or The Medley of Goods … At the Sign of the Looking Glass, AND Druggist Pot” in New York.  Duyckinck’s advertisements appeared regularly in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in the late 1760s and early 1770s, including once again in the advertising supplement for June 24, 1771.   Whether the “Universal Store, Or The Medley of Goods” or “Jackson’s Variety Store,” these advertisers encouraged prospective customers to associate names with their businesses, names that testified to the choices the proprietors made available to consumers.

Jackson’s other marketing strategy enhanced his appeal to price.  He reported that “he has his Goods upon as good Terms as any Merchant in the Town” and passed along low prices to his customers.  He was able to do so because he “has been in England himself the last Winter, and has visited most of the manufacturing Towns.”  Jackson did not need to rely on correspondence with faraway merchants and manufacturers in placing his orders and acquiring his inventory.  Instead, he visited the sites of production himself and negotiated prices in an efficient manner not possible via letters transported across the Atlantic.  That also gave him an opportunity to inspect his wares for quality before arranging for shipment to Boston.  Most other merchants and shopkeepers in the city could not claim to have undertaken that part of the business in person, giving Jackson an advantage to promote in his advertisement.

In giving his store a different kind of name, one not associated with the image on the sign that marked its location, and stating that he had visited the manufacturers himself in the process of acquiring his goods, Jackson refined two popular marketing strategies.  Naming his business “Jackson’s Variety Store” underscored consumer choice, sending an even more powerful message if consumers took the cue and referred to the store by that name.  Noting that he recently visited “most of the manufacturing Towns” in England allowed him to make claims to prices that matched or beat those of his competitors who merely sent away for goods.

May 27

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

Boston Evening-Post (May 27, 1771).

“The above Goods were Chose by ourselves and on the Lowest Terms.”

Douglas Heron and Company advertised “An Assortment of Scotch and English GOODS” recently imported from Glasgow in the May 27, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  Their inventory included a variety of textiles, including “Scotch & Manchester Linen, and Cotton Checks,” a “Variety of plain, flower’d and stript Lawns,” and a “large Assortment of printed” handkerchiefs.  In addition, they stocked accessories and adornments, such as “Ivory and Horn Combs,” “Mens and Womens leather Gloves,” and a “neat Assortment of coloured Ribbons of the newest Patterns.”  In their advertisement, Heron and Company provided an abbreviated catalog of their merchandise to demonstrate the choices available to consumers.  They concluded their litany of goods with “&c. &c.” (the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera) to suggest to prospective customers that they would encounter an even greater array of goods when they shopped at Heron and Company’s store.

The partners also appended a brief nota bene to explain that “The above Goods were Chose by ourselves and on the Lowest Terms.”  The invocation of “Lowest Terms” was the second invocation of price in the advertisement.  Before listing their wares, Heron and Company first assured consumers of their “exceeding Reasonable” prices.  Those prices were so reasonable because they negotiated the “Lowest Terms” with their suppliers and then passed along the savings to their customers.  In stating that they selected the merchandise themselves, Heron and Company made implicit pledges about quality and fashion.  They played an active role in choosing the goods rather than accepting whatever leftovers merchants on the other side of the Atlantic decided to send to faraway associates to attempt to sell in their local markets. Heron and Company knew that colonial customers desired the latest fashions and would not purchase items they considered out of style.  At the same time, those consumers depended on both correspondents in Britain and local merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans to keep them apprised of the newest tastes.  In proclaiming that they chose the items listed in their advertisement, Heron and Company suggested that prospective customers could trust them in offering advice and guidance.  Heron and Company staked their own reputation for understanding the market and assisting customers in outfitting themselves fashionably when they implied that customers should have confidence in the decisions they made when placing orders with their suppliers.

May 22

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 20, 1771).

“A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons … at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”

Following the custom of the time, the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette arranged news accounts according to geography.  News from London (dated April 2), far away, came first, followed by news from other colonies.  The printers also selected updates from Newport (dated May 13) and Portsmouth (dated May 17), in that order, getting closer to their own city before inserting news from Boston (dated May 20).  The local news included a curious item: “A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons, Clouting Diapers, Dowlasses, Huckabuck, Irish Linnens, Silk and Linnen Handkerchiefs, may be had very cheap at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane, if apply’d for this Day.”  Rather than news, it read like an advertisement that belonged elsewhere in the newspaper.

The same item appeared among the news dated “BOSTON, May 20” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and in the Boston Evening-Post.  All three newspapers printed in Boston on that day included what otherwise looked like an advertisement among the local news.  In each case, the printers reprinted some items from a supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published on May 16.  They also inserted new items, varying the order.  In other words, a compositor did not set type from start to finish for content that first appeared elsewhere.  The printers of each newspaper made decisions about which items to include and in which order.  They all decided to include this advertisement among the local news.

Why?  Was it a favor for Joseph Russell, one of the proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  Russell was also a successful auctioneer who regularly advertised in several newspapers rather than restricting his marketing efforts to his own publication.  For instance, he placed an advertisement for an upcoming auction in the May 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  He gave the usual location, “the Auction-Room in Queen-street” rather than “the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”  Something distinguished the sale of the “large and elegant Assortment” of textiles as different, meriting a one-day-only sale at Russell’s home rather than the auction house … and its unique placement among news items instead of alongside other advertisements.

As a partner in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Russell certainly exercised some influence in the placement of his advertisements, even though John Green oversaw the day-to-day operations of the newspaper.  Deciding to experiment with an unusual placement for his notice, Russell may have convinced other printers to give his advertisement a privileged place in their publications as well.  In his History of Printing in America (1810), Isaiah Thomas described Russell as “full of life,” asserting that “[f]ew men had more friends, or were more esteemed.  In all companies he rendered himself agreeable.”[1]  Perhaps this vivacious auctioneer convinced his partner and several other printers to slip an advertisement into a place that such notices did not customarily appear in the 1770s.

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[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 140.

April 8

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 8, 1771).

“Rider from Boston to Northampton, Deerfield, &c.”

Silent Wilde’s advertisement in the April 8, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post testified to the dissemination of that newspaper to subscribers who lived far from its place of publication.  Wilde described himself as a “Rider from Boston to Northampton, Deerfield, &c.”  He served towns in the western part of the colony, one hundred miles and more from the bustling port city.  Only six newspapers were printed in the colony at the time, five of them in Boston and one in Salem.  For residents of Northampton, Deerfield, and other towns, the Boston Evening-Post was a local newspaper.

The printing office of the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, was closer than Boston, but that newspaper did not carry nearly as much news about Massachusetts matters, including coverage of the governor and the colonial assembly, as the Evening-Post and other newspapers from Boston.  The issue of the Evening-Post that carried Wilde’s advertisement, for instance, devoted two out of three columns on the front page to news with a “BOSTON, APRIL 4” dateline.  The printers evenly divided the second page between news from London and news from Boston, including exchanges between the governor and the assembly.  The Connecticut Courant reprinted news from Boston publications, but that newspaper’s coverage of Massachusetts politics and current events was not nearly as extensive as what appeared in the newspapers published in that colony.  As was the case in most colonies, newspapers printed in the largest city served as both local and regional publications, disseminating news to the far reaches of the colony.

Wilde ran his advertisement in the Evening-Post, but he indicated that he “carried the Boston News-Papers.”  His “Engagement with the Printers” to serve subscribers in western towns likely included Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, and the Massachusetts Spy.  The names of those publications suggested both local and regional coverage of news and dissemination of newspapers.  It took some time for those publications to reach residents of Northampton, Deerfield, and other towns, but they eventually read the same news and advertising, as packaged by the printers, as residents of Boston.