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.

April 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 1, 1771).

“At the Black Boy and Butt.”

Two advertisements in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured Black bodies on display, either as part of a device that marked the location of a shop or in the description of an enslaved man who liberated himself by fleeing from his enslaver.  In each instance, an advertiser laid claim to a Black body for his own purposes and benefit.

Jonathan Williams sold “Good Madeira,” other imported wines, and cider at his shop “in Cornhill.”  To help customers identify his business, Williams marked the location with a sign, “the Black Boy and Butt,” that depicted a Black child and a large cask.  Like other purveyors of goods and services who included shop signs in their advertisements, Williams presented an image intended to represent his business, a precursor to the modern logo.  In this instance, that image commodified not only wine through the depiction of the cask but also Black men, women, and children through the depiction of the “Black Boy.”  Both wine and enslaved Black people arrived in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies via networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic.  Colonial consumers very well knew that commerce depended in large part on enslaved labor and the transatlantic slave trade.  In placing a Black boy and a cask on display, Williams’s shop sign encapsulated that relationship.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (April 1, 1771).

Elsewhere among the advertisements in that issue, Hugh McLean of Milton provided a description of “a Negro Man, named Peleg Abby” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend said Runaway.”  According to McLean, Abby was “about 26 Years of Age” and “about Five Feet Six Inches high.”  To help readers recognize the fugitive who sought his freedom so they could return him to bondage, McLean also documented the clothes Abby wore when he departed and other clothes he took with him.  McLean placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but that version also included a generic woodcut of a Black man on the run.  The image helped draw attention to that advertisement at the same time that McLean asked readers to take careful note of the age, height, and clothing of all Black men they encountered in order to discern if any of them might be the enslaved man he sought to recover.

Black people were a common sight in Boston and its hinterlands in the colonial period on the eve of the American Revolution.  Descriptions of Black bodies, sometimes accompanied by nondescript woodcuts, were also subjects of interest in the public prints, frequently appearing in newspaper advertisements published in the bustling port city.  Their presence testified to the extent that both culture and commerce, even in New England, were enmeshed the transatlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the colonies.

March 27

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

Boston Evening-Post (March 25, 1771).

“She has resigned Business to her Son.”

When Susannah Brimmer “resigned Business to her Son,” Andrew Brimmer, in 1771, she (or they) placed an advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post.  The occasion of transferring her business to her son was the first time that Susannah’s name appeared in the public prints.  She did not previously advertise when she operated the shop.  A week after the advertisement first appeared, two versions ran on March 25.  Susannah or Andrew or the two working together updated the original advertisement.

The placement of these two advertisements helps to explain the likely sequence of events.  The original version appeared on the fourth page.  The updated version appeared on the third page.  Like most other newspapers published in the 1770s, the Boston Evening-Post consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  The first and fourth pages, the “outside” of the newspaper, were printed simultaneously, as were the second and third pages, the “inside” of the newspaper.  Usually, the first and fourth pages were printed first.  That means that even though readers who perused the Boston Evening-Post from start to finish encountered the updated version first, it most likely was printed after the original version they eventually encountered on the last page.

The additional copy in the updated version made that even more likely.  More than doubling the amount of space occupied by the original version, the new copy listed dozens of items available at the shop.  The first portion retained the copy and layout for all but the final two lines.  The compositor made minor revisions that introduced a transition to the catalog of goods.  Who was responsible for extending the advertisement so significantly?  Given that Susannah never previously advertised, even though she made other astute entrepreneurial decisions, like making improvements to her shop, should the list of goods and the expense of publishing it be attributed to Andrew?  Was this an innovation that he introduced when he took control of the business?  Did Susannah make recommendations about strategies for relaunching the business in the public prints?  What explains the two variants of the advertisement and the timing of their publication?  Do the two versions represent different visions for establishing a presence in the public prints?  Or did other factors play a role in an updated version of their advertisement running in the same issue as the original version?  What stories about the intersections of gender, family, and business might these advertisements suggest but not fully reveal?

March 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (March 18, 1771).

“Susannah Brimmer … has resigned Business to he Son.”

In the early 1770s, Susannah Brimmer ran a shop the South End of Boston.  In May 1771, she placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter announcing that she “resigned Business to her Son, Andrew Brimmer.”  The younger Brimmer recently imported a “fresh Assortment of English Goods” from London and planned to sell them “Wholesale and Retail, Very Cheap for Cash.”  He also carried “Pepper, Spices, English Loaf Sugar,” and other grocery items.

Even though Susannah had been an enterprising entrepreneur who established her own clientele and made improvements to her shop, she did not appear in the pages of the Evening-Post, the Weekly News-Letter, or any of the other newspapers published in Boston prior to transferring her business to her son.  She did not place advertisements to promote her business.  Susannah instead relied on other means of attracting customers, such as renovations to her shop to enhance the shopping experience for consumers.

Not every merchant and shopkeeper in colonial Boston advertised in one or more of the many newspapers printed there, but women who ran businesses advertised less often than their male counterparts.  Certainly, fewer women than men earned their livelihoods as proprietors of businesses, yet that does not explain why they were proportionally underrepresented among advertisers.  It does not explain why Susannah never advertised until she transferred her business to Andrew.

Perhaps attitudes about women in business help to explain the reticence of some female entrepreneurs when it came to inserting advertisements in the public prints.  A satirical letter to the editor by the purported “Widows of this City” in the January 21, 1733, edition of the New-York Weekly Journal mocked “she Merchants” and their participation in any sector of the public sphere.  Shopkeepers like Susannah Brimmer may have navigated a careful course of encouraging prospective customers without drawing unwelcome attention to themselves via newspaper advertisements.  Friendships and other relationships, word of mouth, making improvements to her shop, and other strategies likely served Brimmer well in the absence of running advertisements.  Once she “resigned Business to her Son,” however, she did not have the same concerns.  To increase his likelihood of success, she recommended his shop to both “her Customers and Others,” hoping that he would build on and expand the clientele she cultivated.

February 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 18, 1771).

“Massachusetts-Spy.”

Just over six months after the Massachusetts Spy commenced publication in July 1770, printer Isaiah Thomas temporarily suspended the newspaper in early February 1771.  Thomas warned both current and prospective subscribers of the hiatus in a series of notices in the Spy, pledging that he would relaunch the newspaper, with improvements, in March.  He hoped that the plans he outlined would attract new subscribers.

During the time that Thomas suspended publication, he turned to other newspapers to promote the Spy and seek subscribers.  On February 18, he placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In each, he addressed “all LOVERS of NEWS, POLITICKS, TRUE LIBERTY, and the FREEDOM of the PRESS.”  He also declared that the Spy was “open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None,” though Thomas became an increasingly vocal supporter of the patriot cause.  Indeed, four years later he fled to the relative safety of Worcester and set up his press there because he feared retribution from British officials angered by coverage in his newspaper if he remained in Boston.

Rather than focus on politics in this advertisement, however, Thomas described the plan for publishing the improved Spy.  He originally intended to publish it on Tuesdays, the day after the newspaper that carried his advertisement, but reported that he would instead publish it on Thursdays “at the Request of a great Number of the Subscribers.”  In appearing to give the customers what they wanted, Thomas further enhanced the Spy by gaining “the Advantage of inserting what News may be brought by the Hartford-Post, who arrives on Wednesday Evenings.”  Like other newspapers, the Spy featured extracts of letters and items reprinted directly from other newspapers.

Thomas also listed other details, including the size and appearance of the newspaper and subscription rates.  The revitalized Spy “will be printed on Demy Paper, every Number to contain four Pages large Folio, and every Page four columns.”  While a couple of newspapers published in other towns at that time featured four columns per page, none of those published in Boston did.  In this manner, Thomas sought to distinguish his newspaper from the local competition.  If printers mentioned subscriptions rates in print at all, they most often did so in the plan of publication.  Thomas set the price at six shillings and eight pence per year, with half to be paid on delivery of the first issue and the other half paid at the end of the year.  Like other printers, he extended credit to subscribers.

The enterprising printer also gave instructions for subscribing, inviting “All those who are kind enough to encourage this Undertaking … to give in their Names as soon as they conveniently can.”  Thomas accepted subscriptions himself, but he also specified several agents in Boston.  They included fellow booksellers and printers, though none of the printers of other newspapers published in Boston.  He also had local agents in nearby Charlestown as well as the more distant Salem.  Thomas would eventually collect the “Subscription Papers” from his various agents and collate the names into a single subscription list.

Thomas envisioned significant improvements to the Massachusetts Spy, but he needed the support of subscribers to put his plans into effect.  He first outlined new aspects of his newspaper in the Spy before it temporarily halted publication, but then he turned to advertising in other newspapers to seek subscribers (and presumably advertisers) and generate interest as the public anticipated publication of the new Massachusetts Spy.