December 21

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

Dec 21 - 12:21:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (December 21, 1767).

John M’Lane stop’d last Wednesday Night a Large Silver Spoon.”

Watchmaker John McLane advertised his services in the Boston Post-Boy for several weeks in December 1767. He relied on two marketing strategies to attract potential clients, one commonly used by artisans and the other a clever innovation that testified to his character in addition to his credentials.

McLane opened his advertisement with a recitation of his training to assure customers that he was qualified to work as a watchmaker. He had completed an apprenticeship, having “serv’d his Time in Dublin to one of the best Finishers there.” On its own, this might have impressed prospective clients, but McLane also reported that he received additional training when he “work’d in London for improvement.” Artisans who migrated across the Atlantic frequently asserted their connections to the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the empire, often providing details about their previous training and work.

McLane’s second strategy, however, deviated from colonial artisans’ usual marketing practices. He appended a nota bene that reported he had “stop’d last Wednesday Night a large Silver Spoon.” In other words, a man that McLane deemed untrustworthy had attempted to sell him a spoon, but the watchmaker suspected stolen goods. He confiscated the spoon and advertised descriptions of both the spoon and the man who attempted to sell it to him. The owner, upon recognizing the monogram or “Marks of the Spoon,” could contact McLane to have it returned.

When he “stop’d” the silver spoon, McLane prevented it from circulating in an informal economy or black market, an alternative means for many colonists to participate in the consumer revolution. Less scrupulous artisans would have purchased it at a bargain price and not questioned how the stranger who presented the spoon had acquired it. By taking this action, McLane demonstrated his character to potential customers in a manner they might remember longer than they would recall his training in Dublin and additional experience in London. Not only was he skilled, he was also trustworthy.

August 10

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

Aug 10 - 8:10:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (August 10, 1767).

“Various Branches of the Mathematicks taught by WILLIAM CORLETT.”

In the summer of 1767 William Corlett placed an advertisement in the Boston Post-Boy to announce that he had commenced teaching “ARITHMETICK, And various Branches of the Mathematicks.” He indicated that his pupils could learn “the first five Rules of Arithmatick,” navigation, surveying, and bookkeeping “after the Italian Method.” This curriculum suggests that Corlett worked as a tutor for youths and adult learners rather than as a schoolmaster for children. He taught specialized skills of particular value to those who pursued (or wished to pursue) occupations that depended on numeracy. Unlike schoolmasters who advertised their lessons, he also indicated specific outcomes so potential students could anticipate the time and total fees they could expect to invest. They learned the basics, “the first five Rules,” in forty hours. They became competent in navigation and surveying in forty-eight hours, each. Double-entry bookkeeping, “the Italian Method,” required additional study; Corlett’s students devoted an entire month to learning this skill.

What were the first five rules of arithmetic? Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division accounted for four of them, but the final rule creates some confusion among historians of mathematics education. It may have been basic numeration, simple counting and the ability to identify and express numbers set down in numerals. Given the rest of his curriculum, however, Corlett may have included the Rule of Three (also known as the Golden Rule) in his introductory course of study. In “Numeracy in Early Modern England,” Keith Harris describes the Rule of Three as “a rule of proportion whose aim was to find a fourth number when three were known.” He offers this example: “if the wages of three carpenters are 24d, what would the wages of seven carpenters be?”[1] Solving this problem requires multiplication and division; students needed to master those skills before attempting proportions.

Some prospective students likely found the “various Branches of Mathematicks” intimidating, but Corlett assured them that “any one of a moderate Capacity” could fairly quickly learn the skills he taught. By specifying how many hours of instruction were necessary to attain each skill, he signaled that he would not prolong the process or attempt to wring as much tuition as possible out of his pupils.


[1] Keith Thomas, “Numeracy in Early Modern England: The Prothero Lecture,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 37 (1987): 114-115.

June 22

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

Jun 22 - 6:22:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (June 22, 1767).

“She undertakes to make and mend Men’s Leather Shoes.”

Elizabeth Shaw, “Shoe-Maker, from Europe,” was not the only woman who placed a newspaper advertisement for consumer goods and services in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today. Mary Hill also inserted a commercial notice in the Boston Post-Boy, informing potential customers that she sold a “Variety of Millinary.” Priscilla Manning informed readers of the Boston Evening-Post that she carried a “Variety of English & India GOODS” at her shop. In other colonies, Mary Maylem’s advertisement for a “neat Assortment of fashionable GOODS” appeared in the Newport Mercury. The Widow Hays hawked “ALL Sorts of PICKLES … with several Sorts of SWEET MEATS” in the New-York Gazette while Margaret Collins and Elizabeth Bevan each placed her own advertisement for “Gentlemen Lodgers” in the New-York Mercury. Mrs. Adams did not place a separate advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette, but writing master William Adams indicated near the end of his notice that “Mrs. Adams will teach young ladies to sew” and planned to acquire “a compleat assortment of millinary” to retail on her own.

Shaw joined the ranks of other women who entered the marketplace by inserting an advertisement in the public prints, but the nature of her business differed from the other women who advertised on the same day. Among those who sold goods, Manning and Maylem operated shops where they sold all kinds of imported goods, but especially textiles and housewares. Hill specialized in selling millinery and also made her own hats to sell to other women. Hays provided food to her customers. Collins, Bevan, and Adams extended their domestic responsibilities into business endeavors, the first two taking in boarders and Adams teaching girls to sew. Although they all entered the marketplace, these women followed occupations deemed appropriate to their gender. Shaw, on the other hand, practiced a trade more often associated with men, though not their exclusive domain. She did not limit herself to predominantly female clients, but instead made and repaired “Men’s Leather Shoes” as well. The other female advertisers demonstrated what was probable when it came to women’s occupations in colonial America, but Shaw’s advertisement testified to what was possible.

May 4

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

May 4 - 5:4:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (May 4, 1767).

“GOODS, consisting of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements.”

Gilbert Deblois frequently advertised in Boston’s newspapers, sometimes at great length. On May 4, 1767, he inserted the same advertisement in both the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston Post-Boy. Several days earlier the same notice appeared in the extraordinary that accompanied the current issue of the Massachusetts Gazette. Compared to some of his other marketing efforts in the public prints, this notice was considerably shorter. Still, extending over almost one-third of a column, it occupied significantly more space – about three times as much – compared to advertisements placed by some of his competitors.

Deblois seemed less concerned about those advertisements than the much lengthier list advertisements placed by other competitors, including John Appleton and John Barrett and Sons (two-thirds of a column), Clement Jackson and John Gore, Jr. (three-quarters of a column), and Frederick William Geyer (an entire column and one-fifth of another). Those advertisements listed scores of items stocked by local shopkeepers.

Deblois devised a way to make those lengthy list advertisements (paid for by his competitors) work to his own advantage. After inserting the standard language about “A complete fashionable Assortment of English & India Piece GOODS,” he proclaimed that he carried “every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements and many others not usually imported.” (The italics appeared in the advertisements in all three newspapers that carried this advertisement, indicating that Deblois gave specific instructions to the printers rather than leaving it to their discretion to make decisions about that particular aspect of formatting the notice. On the other hand, the three advertisements had other variations in format, but not copy.)

Considering the variety of consumer goods imported and advertised by Boston’s merchants and shopkeepers, readers probably greeted this pronouncement with some skepticism. As a frequent advertiser who sometimes placed lengthy list notices, however, Deblois may have previously amassed some credibility. He did not need to enumerate all of his wares in every advertisement. Invoking his competitors’ advertisements provided a means of listing his merchandise without actually listing it – or paying to do so. This also initiated a challenge to potential customers to visit his shop and assess for themselves the validity of his claim, generating foot traffic that could result in additional sales.

April 13

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 13 - 4:13:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (April 13, 1767).

“To be sold by Public Vendue by Elias Dupee”

Auction! This advertisement features a “PUBLIC VENDUE” or auction as the way of purchasing goods. This intrigued me because when I think of auctions I think of auctioneers speaking very quickly, running through prices, and then addressing the person who was the highest bidder. How did this work in the 1760s? What was the purpose of auctions during that time?

T.H Breen provides information regarding auctions during the eighteenth century. He states, “By 1750, they functioned as a major outlet in the great chain of acquisitions.”[1] These auctions, also referred to as vendue sales, provided another method for both consumers and businessmen. They allowed consumers to buy goods that might have been harder to find as well as potentially do so at a lower rate.

Breen also discusses the controversy that lay around auctions. “Defenders insisted that the public auctions represented a marvelous innovation that served the interests of everyone involved.”[2] Opponents, however, argued that, “although the large public auction supplied some small retailers with British imports at lower rates, the properties of larger stores complained about unfair competition.”[3] Auctions provided consumers another means of purchasing goods, some of which were purchased at more reasonabe prices. They also added a different spin on consumerism and business during the eighteenth century.



As Shannon explains, vendue sales were a popular method for buying and selling merchandise in eighteenth-century America. In addition to Elias Dupee’s notice about sales by “PUBLIC VENDUE” scheduled to take place in his “New-Auction Room in Royal Exchange Lane” on three afternoons later in the week, readers of the Boston-Post Boy encountered several other advertisements for auctions in the April 13, 1767, issue.

“J. Russell, Auctioneer” inserted multiple notices announcing that he sold various consumer goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE, at the Auction-Room in Queen-Street.” Some of the items up for bid, including “A Variety of House Furniture,” seemed to be secondhand goods. This combination of factors did indeed make a greater variety of goods accessible to greater numbers of consumers: used goods already sold for reduced prices compared to new ones and the variable winning bids at vendue sales sometimes drove those prices even lower. Auctions also reduced prices of popular commodities sold by retailers. One of Russell’s advertisements promoted “A quantity of very good Brown SUGARS, suitable for Shop-keepers or private Families.” Even if consumers did not have a chance to cut out the middleman (or middlewoman, given the number of female shopkeepers in port cities) by attending this auction, they stood to benefit when retailers passed on the savings.

In addition to facilitating commercial transactions, vendue sales were also social events. In an earlier draft, Shannon imagined residents of Boston gathering to bid on items of interest and interacting with each other in the process. This created a very different atmosphere for shopping than the customers of Frederick William Geyer, John Gillespie, and Susanna Renken – all of whom advertised their shops in the same issue of the Boston Post-Boy – experienced in one-on-one transactions with shopkeepers. Earlier this week Shannon argued that the consumer revolution was fueled in part by competition among colonists. Displaying possessions, she asserted, made consumption a public practice. Participating in auctions also became a social ritual, one that made the process of buying and selling a communal, rather than private, experience.


[1] T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 140.

[2] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 141.

[3] Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 142.

December 22

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

Boston Post-Boy (December 22, 1766).

“A General Assortment of English Goods.”

Elizabeth Williams operated a shop out of her “House in Beer Lane, near the Rev. Mr. Pemberton’s Meeting-House” in Boston. She imported “a general Assortment of English Goods” from London, including “Cotton Velvets,” Mens mill’d Hose, Gloves and Caps,” and “Stationary & hard Ware.” Although she listed approximately two dozen types of merchandise, she also carried “a variety of other Articles, to many to be here inserted.”

In promoting a variety of consumer goods recently imported from English ports, Williams advanced one of the most common marketing appeals of the eighteenth century. She offered choices to potential customers, drawing them in by naming popular items and by promising even more for shoppers to discover and examine once they were in her shop. Indeed, “variety” was important in Williams’ marketing efforts. In addition to general descriptions of her merchandise, she inserted the word into her list twice: “A variety of Broad Cloths” and “A great Variety of Coat and Breast Buttons.” Her customers would not be stuck with whatever she happened to have on hand; instead, they could choose according to their own tastes.

Williams also made appeals to price, noting that she sold her English goods “at the lowest Advance.” For one product, “yard-wide Irish Linnens,” she had several different sorts “of all Prices,” again offering choices to her potential customers. In addition, she made implicit appeals to fashion when she listed several textiles, as well as an explicit appeal when she described her candlesticks as “New-fashion.”

In making appeals to choice, price, and fashion, Williams adopted several of the most popular marketing strategies deployed by her male competitors. In that regard, little distinguished her advertisement from others except that a woman’s name appeared at the beginning. Other historians have demonstrated that in the busiest urban ports, like Boston, as many as one-third of shopkeepers were women by the middle of the eighteenth century, although they do not comprise such a high proportion of advertising for consumer goods and services. Women faced challenges when they operated retail establishments, but they were not excluded from participating on the supply – rather than the consumption – side of the marketplace. Elizabeth Williams’ advertisement demonstrates one method used by some female shopkeepers to integrate into a male-dominated occupation.

October 20

GUEST CURATOR: Lindsay Hajjar

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

Boston Post-Boy (October 20, 1766).


Why did William Whitwell emphasize “RAISINS” in his advertisement? In Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra Oliver describes how colonists ate and cooked with raisins. Raisins were one the most common dried fruits imported in the colonies. However, the raisins that colonists ate were dried with seeds in them so they were much larger than the ones we have today. When cooking with raisins many recipes called for them to be “stoned” or deseeded meaning the colonists had to rehydrate them. Raisins were baked into cakes, eaten with nuts and other fruits, and even soaked in rum and eaten with a spoon.[1] They had diverse uses to the colonists and they lasted for long periods of time. Raisins were not only something that would keep well in storage, they were also a good source of fiber. They also contained antioxidants that might not have been present in other stored foods.

Colonists in Boston understood how harsh and unpredictable New England winters could be. In October they started preparing for the storms to come. Having the opportunity to buy dried fruit in advance of winter was probably very welcome. New England’s erratic weather patterns called for extra precaution and preparedness. This advertisement provided one way to get ready for the oncoming winter.

Even living in the twenty-first century we can sometimes be ill prepared for what a New England winter might entail, waiting until the last minute to take precautions when we hear that a big storm could be coming. We all know what it is like to go to the grocery story before a big storm, sometimes arriving a little too late. We live with many more amenities, like radars that can tell us a storm is coming or another grocery story a few miles down the road. The colonists, however, did not have these luxuries and had to gear up well in advance if they were going to make it to the spring. Living in colonial Massachusetts meant being as prepared as possible and storing food that would keep well into the winter months. The way raisins could be transformed into many other recipes with a few other ingredients, had a great nutritional value, and kept well made them a hot commodity for the colonists.



On the whole, raisins have probably received less scholarly attention than other grocery items listed in eighteenth-century advertisements, especially sugar and spices. Still, historians of food, commerce, and consumer culture have not completely ignored the humble raisin. Lindsay consulted Sandra Louise Oliver’s Food in Colonial and Federal America to uncover several aspects of eating and cooking with raisins that differ quite significantly from modern practices. In the process, she offered a helpful reminder that even commodities that might appear familiar have changed over time. Raisins once came with seeds (until the late nineteenth century when seedless grapes were developed). Sugar once came in loafs. Colonists ate foods that modern Americans would consider simultaneously familiar and foreign.

In Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America, Christina J. Hodge elaborates on raisins and their uses in the eighteenth century. “Raisins were used in cooking as a sweetener and, if soaked in water, to produce homemade vinegar (a useful preservative).” How many modern consumers realize that raisins had such versatile uses 250 years ago? Hodge also reports that raisins grown in Spain were considered superior, but “British trade laws made direct importation to America from Spain illegal.”[2] As a result, most raisins consumed by colonists likely came from grapes that had been locally grown. Advertisers were not the only colonists who promoted raisins in colonial newspapers. According to Hodge, in 1728 the Boston News-Letter ran an article of dietary suggestions for “Families of a Middling Figure, who bare the Character of being Genteel.” It listed raisins (along with currants, cranberries, and apples) as an appropriate supplement to be enjoyed as part of the main meal of the day.[3] It seems that raisins truly merited the oversized headline in William Whitwell’s advertisement.


[1] Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 69-70.

[2] Christina J. Hodge, Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 88-89.

[3] Hodge, Consumerism, 87.