April 20

GUEST CURATOR: Victoria Ostrowski

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 20, 1772).

Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashion.”

In this advertisement, Thomas Lee sold a variety of goods imported from England. The ones that stood out the most to me were the “Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashion.” I was interested in finding more about silks because I wanted to know more about women’s fashion in the colonial era. I discovered that the materials used to make women’s clothing changed during the eighteenth century. According to the “Fashion History Timeline” from the Fashion Institute of Technology, “The heavy, brocaded, lushly floral silks of the mid-century were superseded by silks that were both lighter in weight and simpler in design, heralding ‘the advent of Neo-Classicism.’ In the first half of the 1770s, motifs shrank significantly and ‘the vertical element of the of the late 1760s proliferated in the early 1770s into clusters of broad and narrow stripes.’ By the middle of the decade, ‘the clustered stripes had all but disappeared and, instead … [they were absolutely regular in width.” Fashions for women seemed to enter a new age of design every couple of years! Thomas Lee advertised “a most elegant Assortment” of “Ladies SILKS,” allowing for colonial women to dress in “the newest Fashions.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Along with price and quality, eighteenth-century advertisers frequently made appeals to fashion as they attempted to incite demand for the goods they sold.  Merchants and shopkeepers, tailors and milliners all tried to convince prospective customers that they could outfit them in current styles.  As Tori notes, Thomas Lee promoted his “Supply of Ladies SILKS of the newest Fashions” in an advertisement that ran in the April 20, 1772, edition of Boston Evening-Post.  Elsewhere in the same issue, Cyrus Baldwin advertised a “large and neat Assortment of English and India Goods” that included “LADIES newest-fashioned bonnets” and other items.  The proprietors of the Irish Linen Warehouse on King Street informed readers that they stocked a “Variety of the most elegant Copper-Plate printed Muslins for Ladies Summer Wear, much esteemed at present among the most fashionable People in England.”  John Barrett and Sons published an extensive catalog of goods available at their shop, underscoring fashion in the first two entries: “New fashion brown, purple, green & blue English Damasks” and “Very fashionable & genteel brocaded & striped, changeable cloth color’d, white, grey and black Mantuas & Lutestrings.”

As these examples make clear, purveyors of textiles, garments, and all sorts of accessories knew that prospective customers did not measure fashion solely in terms of the styles they saw others wearing in the colonies.  Instead, consumers looked across the Atlantic for cues, seeking to demonstrate that they shared the sophisticated tastes of genteel men and women who shopped in London and pursued cosmopolitan lifestyles in town and country.  Those tastes evolved quickly, as Tori discovered in her research.  How quickly they evolved was one of the defining features of the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.  On both sides of the Atlantic, consumers updated their wardrobes much more frequently than they did a century earlier, fueled by a preoccupation with fashion and a desire to display their own status and good taste.  That gave Lee and other advertisers greater leverage in their interactions with prospective customers, enticing them with “the newest Fashions” to get consumers into their shops.

April 13

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 13, 1772).

“A Select Collection of Letters Of the late Reverend GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

It was one of the biggest news stories of the year.  George Whitefield died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770.  The next day, newspapers in Boston informed colonizers of the death of one of the most influential ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  Over the next several weeks, news spread throughout New England and to other colonies as printers exchanged newspapers and reprinted coverage from one to another.  Those printers also sensed an opportunity to generate revenues by producing and marketing broadsides, funeral sermons, and books that commemorated the minister’s death.  Throughout the colonies, but especially in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, printers advertised commemorative items as they continued to publish updates about how colonizers near and far reacted to the news of Whitefield’s death.

Such advertising declined by the end of the year, but experienced a resurgence in the spring of 1771 when ships from England arrived in American ports with commemorative books and pamphlets published on the other side of the Atlantic.  Printers and booksellers encouraged colonizers to participate in another round of commodifying Whitefield.  That lasted for a couple of months before mentions of the minister faded from advertisements in the public print.  That did not mean, however, that entrepreneurs believed that the market for such commodities had disappeared, only that it was no longer so robust.  In the spring of 1772, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, advertised “A Select Collection of Letters Of the late Reverend GEORGE WHITEFIELD … Written to his most intimate Friends, and Persons of Distinction, in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America.”  The minister wrote those letters between 1734 and 1770, “including the whole of his Ministry.”  In addition, the three-volume set contained “an Account of the Orphan House in Georgia” founded by Whitefield.  In an advertisement in the April 13, 1772, editions of the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette, the Fleets indicated that they “Just received” the books “by the last Ship from London.”  Printers in England continued producing Whitefield memorabilia.  Apparently believing that demand existed or could be cultivated for such materials on both sides of the Atlantic, they presented consumers with another opportunity to acquire printed items associated with the minister.

April 6

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 6, 1772).

“At the GOLDEN MORTAR … A compleat and fresh Assortment of Drugs & Medicines.”

Very few images appeared in the April 6, 1772, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  The masthead ran on the first page, as usual, featuring a cartouche with an ornate border enclosing an image of a crown suspended over a heart.  Immediately below, the colophon stated that the newspaper was “Printed by THOMAS and JOHN FLEET, at the HEART and CROWN in Cornhill.”  Readers encountered only two other images in that issue, both of them adorning advertisements on the second page.  A woodcut depicting a ship at sea embellished a notice that announced the London would soon sail for London.  It helped draw attention to instructions for anyone interested in “Freight or Passage [to] apply to the Captain on board, or to Nath. Wheatley’s Store in King-Street.”

That woodcut belonged to the printers, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet.  The woodcut that accompanied Oliver Smith’s advertisement, however, did not.  It depicted a mortar and pestle, replicating Smith’s shop sign, “the GOLDEN MORTAR,” in the same way the image in the masthead represented the sign that marked the Fleets’ printing office.  The Fleets and other printers supplied a small number of woodcuts – ships at sea, houses, horses, enslaved people – for eighteenth-century advertisers to include in their newspaper notices.  If advertisers wished for specialized images associated exclusively with their businesses, they commissioned the woodcuts and provided them to the printers.  That also meant they could retrieve their woodcuts from one printing office and submit them to another.

Smith did so in the early 1770s.  His woodcut depicting a mortar and pestle enhanced an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter in the fall of 1771.  More than half a year later, the same woodcut appeared in an advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post.  Not only did Smith attempt to widen his share of the market for “Drugs & Medicines” in Boston by advertising in multiple newspapers, he also sought to increase the visibility of the device associated with his shop.  The “GOLDEN MORTAR” served as a rudimentary trademark or brand that made his advertisements and his shop easy for consumers to identify.

April 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (March 30, 1772).

“An ORATION … to commemorate the BLOODY TRAGEDY.”

On the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Dr. Joseph Warren delivered “An ORATION … at the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of BOSTON, to commemorate the BLOODY TRAGEDY of the FIFTH of MARCH, 1770.”  Colonizers gathered to listen to the address, but attending that gathering was not their only means of participating in the commemoration of such a significant event.  Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette, published Warren’s “ORATION” and marketed it widely in Massachusetts.

They placed their first advertisement in their own newspaper less than three weeks after Warren addressed “the Inhabitants of the Town.”  Their lengthy notice in the March 23, 1772, edition of the Boston-Gazette included an extensive excerpt about “the ruinous Consequences of standing Armies to free Communities.”  Edes and Gill also stated that they stocked “A few of Mr. LOVELL’S ORATIONS Deliver’d last April, on the same Occasion.”  Prospective customers had an opportunity to collect memorabilia related to the “FATAL FIFTH OF MARCH 1770.”  The following day, Samuel Hall, one of the printers of the Essex Gazette, informed readers that he sold copies of Warren’s address “published in Boston.”  His advertisement did not include an excerpt from the address, nor did subsequent advertisements that Edes and Gill placed in other newspapers in Boston.  They inserted a brief notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on March 26 and then repeated it in the Boston Evening-Post on March 30.

Edes and Gill advertised widely.  That increased the chances that consumers would see their notices and contemplate purchasing copies of Warren’s “ORATION,” but those patriot printers likely aimed for more than generating sales.  Their advertisements in several newspapers contributed to a culture of commemoration of the American Revolution years before the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.  Their work in the printing office, publishing newspapers and marketing pamphlets that commemorated the Boston Massacre, played an important role in shaping public opinion as colonizers considered current events and the possibility of declaring independence.

February 19

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 17, 1772).

“On as low Terms as at any Store in BOSTON.”

The partnership of Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers made low prices one of the focal points of their advertising in a notice that ran in the February 17, 1772, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  Most newspaper advertisements of the era featured the names of the advertisers as headlines, if they included headlines at all, but in this case “Amorys, Taylor and Rogers” constituted a secondary headline.  Their advertisement commenced with a primary headline that proclaimed, “GOODS EXTREMELY CHEAP.”

The partners then developed that theme in a nota bene that preceded a lengthy list of their inventory that extended three-quarters of a column.  They offered their wares wholesale to retailers, both “Country Shopkeepers” and “Town Shopkeepers.”  Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers explained that they offered their customers low prices because they acquired “almost every Kind of Goods usually imported from Great Britain … immediately from the Manufacturors.”  In other words, they did not deal with English merchants whose intervention tended to inflate prices.  By eliminating those middlemen, Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers kept prices down for American retailers.  In turn, those retailers could generate business by setting their own low prices for their customers.

The partners underscored that they offered the best bargains.  They pledged that “Country Shopkeepers may be supplied at any Time with what Goods they want, and on as low Terms as at any Store in BOSTON.”  Those “Country Shopkeepers” had many choices of merchants supplying retailers with imported goods in that bustling port city, but Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers indicated that they matched the prices of any of their competitors.  In addition, “Town Shopkeepers … who usually import their Goods, may have them on such Terms as may answer them as well as importing.”  Retailers in Boston would not find better deals through corresponding with English merchants, especially since Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers had their goods shipped “immediately from the Manufacturors.”

Low prices played an important role in marketing imported goods among both wholesalers and retailers in eighteenth-century Boston.  Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers explained at some length how they were able to part with their goods “EXTREMELY CHEAP,” hoping to attract the attention of retailers looking to set low prices of their own and pass along the savings to consumers.  That merchants and shopkeepers promoted low prices comes as no surprise, but the commentary about prices that sometimes appeared in newspaper advertisements demonstrates that some advertisers made deliberate efforts to engage prospective customers rather than passively announcing low prices and expecting that would be sufficient to generate business.

February 3

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 3, 1772).

“Collection of BOOKS … A Catalogue of which may be seen at said Store.”

Henry Knox is most often remembered as the general who oversaw artillery for the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the new nation’s first Secretary of War in George Washington’s cabinet.  Before the Revolution, however, Knox earned his livelihood as a bookseller in Boston.  He frequently advertised books and stationery available at his “LONDON BOOK-STORE” in the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers.  In an advertisement that ran in February 1772, for instance, he promoted a “Large and valuable Collection of BOOKS” as well as “Writing Paper of all Sorts and Sizes … and almost every other kind of Stationary.”

Knox did not name any of the titles he had on hand, but he did list several genres, including “Divinity, History, Law, Physick, and Surgery” and “A Variety of New Novels, Sea Books, All Kinds of School Books, and Classical Authors.”  To entice prospective customers to visit, he confided that “A Catalogue … may be seen at said Store.”  Many booksellers supplemented their newspaper advertisements with other marketing materials, including trade cards, broadsides, and catalogs.  Some historians of early American print culture have cast doubt on how many book catalogs booksellers actually produced and disseminated, suggesting that many catalogs mentioned in newspaper advertisements never materialized.  In this case, however, Knox likely referred to a thirty-two page “Catalogue of books, imported and to be sold by Henry Knox, at the London Book-Store, a Little Southward of the Town-House, in Cornhill, Boston, MDCCLXXII.”  At least two copies survive, one held by the Grolier Club in New York and the other in the collections of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University.

Knox distributed at least one other catalog before the American Revolution.  The Library Company of Philadelphia and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine Library in London each have an undated catalog that highlighted titles by “Much Esteemed Authors in Physic and Surgery.”  That four-page catalog has tentatively been dated to 1772 because the copy in the collections of the Library Company has been bound with and precedes A New Lecture on Heads by George Alexander Stevens, originally printed in London and reprinted for Henry Knox in 1772.  Just as books published in the twenty-first century often include advertisements for other books, printers and booksellers in early American sometimes inserted advertising in the books they produced and sold.

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The catalogers at the American Antiquarian Society provided invaluable assistance in telling the story of Henry Knox and his book catalogs.

January 13

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (January 13, 1772).

A Mahogony Desk and Book-Case.

This advertisement presents a conundrum.  It attracted my attention because someone made manuscript notations on the copy of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy that has been preserved in an archive and digitized for greater accessibility.  They crossed out “FRIDAY” in the portion of the headline that gave the date of an auction, crossed out “a Mahagony Desk and Book-Case” midway through the advertisement, and placed three large “X” over most of the rest of the content.  I suspected that either Joseph Russell or John Green, the partners who published the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, made those notations to guide the compositor in setting type for a revised version of the advertisement to appear in a subsequent issue.  Russell, the auctioneer who placed the advertisement, focused primarily on operating the “Auction Room in Queen-Street” while Green oversaw the newspaper and the printing office.

A revised version did not appear in a subsequent edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  The same advertisement did run in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston Gazette on Monday, January 13, 1772, the same day it appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  Those newspapers ran the same copy, but with variations in line breaks because the compositors made their own decisions about format.  I also looked for revised versions of the advertisement in other newspapers published in Boston between January 13 and the day of the sale.  The Massachusetts Spy published on Thursday, January 16, the day before the say, did not carry the advertisement, but the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter distributed on the same day did feature a slightly revised version.  Only the first line differed from the original version, stating that the auction would take place “TO-MORROW” rather than “On FRIDAY next.”

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 16, 1772).

The rest of the advertisement was identical to the one that ran in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy earlier in the week.  The copy was identical and the format (including line breaks, spelling, and capitals) was identical.  Even the lines on either side of “FRIDAY next, TEN o’Clock” on the final line were identical.  Both advertisements lacked a space between “by” and “PUBLIC VENDUE” on the third line.  The manuscript notations on the original advertisement may have directed someone in revising the first line, but not the remainder of the notice.  Even more puzzling, it looks as though Green and Russell shared type already set at their printing office with Richard Draper, the printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  This is not the first time that I have detected such an instance in newspapers published by these printers in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  It raises questions about both the logistics and the business practices of those involved, questions that merit greater attention and closer examination of the contents, both news and advertising, in the two newspapers.

December 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (December 16, 1771).

“Benjamin Willard, Clock-Maker.”

Benjamin Willard, one of the most prominent clockmakers in eighteenth-century America, placed an advertisement in the December 16, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post to inform the public that he had moved from Lexington to Roxbury.  He assured customers who had already purchased clocks from him with the intention that he would provide any necessary maintenance that they “still may have the same Care taken by applying to him at Roxbury.”  He also directed customers to his original shop in Grafton, where an employee made clocks “as well as at Roxbury.”  Like many other artisans, Willard promoted domestic manufactures, goods produced in the colonies, as alternatives to imported items.  He declared that consumers acquired clocks made and sold at his shop “on much better Terms than those that are purchased from foreign Countries.”  Accordingly, he advocated that colonists who needed clocks “as well as other kind of Mechanical Performances” should support his workshop, especially since “there have been large Sums of Money sent away for foreign Work which may be retained to the Emolument of this Country.”  The clockmaker referenced trade imbalances with Great Britain that had played a role, along with duties imposed on certain goods, in inspiring nonimportation agreements in Boston and other towns in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

Today, a collection of more than eighty clocks constructed by Willard, his three younger brothers, and three generations of the Willard family are on display at the Willard House and Clock Museum in North Grafton, Massachusetts, the second site mentioned in the advertisement.  Those clocks are exhibited “in the birthplace and original workshop of the Willard clockmakers, along with family portraits, furnishings, and other Willard family heirlooms.”  This public history site allows visitors to “step back in time” (surely the pun was intended!) and “witness a unique and important part of America’s technological, artistic, and entrepreneurial history.”

December 11

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

Boston Evening-Post (December 9, 1771).

“[I]f the Teas should not please those that have not yet made trial, they will be received back and the Money returned.”

Archibald Cunningham took to the pages of the Boston Evening-Post to advertise a variety of groceries and housewares in December 1771.  His inventory included sugar, rice, nutmegs, and an assortment of spices as well as “Blue and white China Cups and Saucers” and “Delph & Glass Ware” in several colors.  Cunningham listed each of these items, some with short descriptions, but devoted an entire paragraph to promoting tea.

He informed prospective customers that he carried “Bohea Tea very good” and “excellent Souchong and Hyson Tea.”  According to Cunningham, his tea “has been approved of by good Judges to be of a superior Quality in Flavor and Color to that commonly imported.”  He did not name those “good Judges,” but he also did not expect consumers to accept such testimonials without question.  Instead, Cunningham promised satisfaction by offering a money back guarantee.  [I]f the Teas should not please those that have not yet made trial,” the shopkeeper declared, “they will be received back and the Money returned.”  That likely attracted the attention of some readers as they encountered advertisements placed by several shopkeepers who included tea among their merchandise.

On occasion, purveyors of goods and services experimented with money back guarantees in the eighteenth century, but not so often that such offers regularly appeared in advertisements.  Cunningham provided his customers with an additional benefit that distinguished how he marketed tea from others who advertised the same varieties.  Lewis Deblois and George Deblois listed “Bohea Tea per Chest or Dozen” in their advertisement, giving customer options when it came to quantity.  John Adams and Company commented on the quality of their “Best Hyson and Bohea Tea,” but did not encourage customers to take it home, try it, and then return it for a refund if it did not meet with satisfaction.

In offering a money back guarantee, Cunningham further testified to the quality of his tea.  He would not have made such an offer unless he was confident consumers would rarely invoke the option of returning what they purchased.  The guarantee provided security at the same time that it reassured prospective customers about the quality “in Flavor and Color” of Cunningham’s “Bohea Tea very good” and “excellent Souchong and Hyson Tea.”

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.