April 17

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

Apr 17 - 4:11:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (April 11, 1768).

“Two young HORSES.”

Samuel Harnden placed an advertisement seeking to sell “two young HORSES” in the April 11, 1768, edition of the Boston Post-Boy.  An image of a horse accompanied his advertisement, distinguishing it from most others.  More than thirty advertisements appeared in that issue, but only four featured images of any sort.  In addition to Harnden’s advertisement, a real estate notice included a woodcut of a house and two others concerning maritime trade and transportation incorporated woodcuts of ships.  Otherwise, the issue was devoid of visual images, with the exception of the masthead. A ship at sea and a post rider flanked the newspaper title at the top of the first page of each issue of the Boston Post-Boy.

Visual images constitute an important aspect of twenty-first-century media, in general, and advertising, in particular.  Printing technologies of the eighteenth century, however, made visual images in newspapers relatively rare.  In addition to their type, printers also had a limited number of stock images, woodcuts that could accompany some of the most common types of advertisements. Most of these generic images were represented in the April 11, 1768, edition of the Boston Post-Boy, but advertisements also frequently included woodcuts of slaves in addition to horses, houses, and ships.  Since they belonged to printers and could be used interchangeably for advertisements with the same purpose, such images were not associated with any particular advertisers.  However, some advertisers did invest in woodcuts that represented their businesses, often replicating their shop signs.  Compared to the stock images, significantly fewer paid notices had woodcuts commissioned by the advertiser.

Woodcuts were not the only way to introduce visual variation into eighteenth-century newspapers.  Printers typically possessed a variety of printing ornaments that could be deployed to add visual interest to the page, though the extent of ornamental printing varied from newspaper to newspaper.  The compositors in Green and Russell’s printing shop, for instance, did not tend to insert much ornamental printing into the pages of the Boston Post-Boy, but their counterparts in Edes and Gill’s shop used ornaments to separate news items and advertisements.  In the process, they presented a more sophisticated graphic design.  Given the scarcity of visual images in eighteenth-century newspapers, readers may have been even more attuned to the variations in ornamental printing than modern readers who quickly become overwhelmed by the density of the text in both news items and advertisements.

March 7

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

Mar 7 - 3:7:1768 Boston Post-Boy Supplement
Supplement to the Boston Post-Boy (March 7, 1768).

“(Being a Stranger) in order to establish an Acquaintance, he proposes to sell them for a very small Profit.”

William Scott was new to Boston. On account of “being a Stranger” he had not yet established any sort of personal or commercial reputation among local residents. Readers of the Boston Post-Boy were unfamiliar with him and his business practices, even if the goods he offered for sale seemed familiar enough. Realizing that this worked to his disadvantage in a crowded marketplace where prospective customers had existing relationships with other wholesalers and retailers, Scott determined that he needed to introduce himself to the community and entice them to the shop he kept “in the House wherein Mr. Copeland the Taylor, and Mr. Adams the Barber keep their Work-Shops, next Door to the Sign of General Wolfe, on Dock-Square.”

To that end, Scott promised low prices, pledging to sell his wares “for a very small Profit.” He invited prospective customers to give him a chance, proclaiming that “such as please to make Tryal will find it much to their Advantage in dealing with him.” In addition, “such as buy in the Wholesale Way to sell again, shall have proper Encouragement.” Whether they wished to make purchases for household use or to stock their own shops, Scott offered bargains to all who read his advertisement. Although he did not use the terminology, the strategy he deployed paralleled what eventually became known as a “grand opening sale.” Scott had just set up his business and to get customers through the door he trumpeted the deals they would enjoy in his shop. He aimed “to establish an Acquaintance” with Bostonians who could become regular customers once they knew him and had opportunities to examine his merchandise.

Merchants and shopkeepers frequently made appeals to price in newspaper advertisements published throughout the eighteenth century, but Scott managed to give that strategy an innovative twist. Rather than mention that he sold “on the most reasonable Terms” in passing, he instead constructed his advertisement around his plan to introduce himself to consumers by offering bargain prices. For all intents and purposes, he launched his business with a sale to attract attention.

February 22

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

Feb 22 - 2:22:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 22, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD BY Jolley Allen.”

The graphic design elements of Jolley Allen’s advertisement did little to distinguish it from other notices in the February 22, 1768, edition of the Boston Post-Boy. It looked much the same as those placed by shopkeeper Gilbert Deblois and chairmaker Nathaniel Russell and others. That Allen’s advertisement followed the same format as others merits notice only because this deviated from the signature visual element that Allen previously incorporated into his advertisements: a decorative border composed of printing ornaments that enclosed the list of goods he offered for sale. Allen previously went to great lengths – and probably some expense – to have the compositors for multiple newspapers create borders that made his advertisements recognizable at just a glance. In the summer of 1766, for instance, his advertisements in four newspapers – the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazetteall featured a decorative border. Readers familiar with his advertising in one publication would have readily identified his advertisements when they glimpsed them in others. Even when Allen discontinued the borders in his advertisements in 1767, he still incorporated distinctive visual elements in notices that appeared in multiple newspapers. He consistently strove to enhance the visibility of his advertisements via graphic design, a strategy not employed by the vast majority of advertisers who left it to compositors to determine the layout and other visual aspects of their advertisements.

Allen’s advertisement in the Boston Post-Boy was not an aberration. Neither his advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post on the same day or in the Massachusetts Gazette four days earlier had any distinctive visual effects. By that time he had been inserting these relatively plain advertisements in Boston’s newspapers for weeks. What prompted Allen to do this? His previous advertising campaigns had been innovative. They drew the eye and attracted attention. But had they been effective? Did Allen believe that they attracted enough customers to justify the additional effort and expense they required? He apparently still believed in the value of advertising in general or else he would not have continued to place notices in multiple newspapers in early 1768. Perhaps he could not longer justify the cost of advertisements that demanded special attention by the compositor. Note that even though he listed some of his goods he also stated that he stocked “too many to be enumerated in an Advertisement.” This particular advertisement was shorter than most others he previously published. Allen very well may have determined that he need to cut back on length and graphic design in order to afford advertising at all. His advertisements and the pages of several of Boston’s newspapers became much less visually interesting as a result.

February 7

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

Feb 7 - 2:1:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 1, 1768).

“Joshua Hacker … has two swift sailing small Sloops, which ply constantly between Providence and Newport.”

In the late 1760s Joshua Hacker provided ferry and freight service between Providence and Newport. His “two swift sailing small Sloops” competed with the “Stage-Boats” operated by Thomas and Benjamin Lindsey. That competition took place on the waterways but also on the pages of colonial newspapers. Hacker and the Lindseys both placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette, the terminus of their route. The Lindseys even updated their advertising to promote expanded services in order to compete with Hacker. In turn, Hacker countered by publishing his advertisement in an additional newspaper, widening the market of potential clients.

When it appeared in the February 1, 1768, edition of the Boston Post-Boy, Hacker’s advertisement included the same copy that ran in the Providence Gazette, from comments about the “exceeding good Accomodations for Passengers” to promoting his “ten Years” of experience” to listing prices for shipping all sorts of freight down to “A Box of Candles.” The version in the Boston Post-Boy did introduce the alternate spelling of “Accomodations,” but Hacker did not revise or abbreviate his lengthy advertisement before submitting it to Green and Russell for publication in their newspaper.

Providence and Newport were busy ports in the late 1760s, but Boston was an even larger and busier port. Hacker realized that many merchants and others who did business in Boston might also have cause to travel between Providence and Newport or transport goods between the two locations. Having established himself in Rhode Island and facing an increasingly aggressive rivalry with the Lindseys for local clients, he attempted to drum up new business from prospective customers in a nearby market that had not been recently exposed to his advertisements. The notice in the Boston Post-Boy may have been an attempt to gauge whether such efforts were worth the investment. If Hacker experienced increased business from residents of Boston he could consider placing advertisements in other newspapers, including the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette. On the other hand, if the advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy did not seem to yield additional clients Hacker could decide that advertising in other newspapers would not result in a sufficient return on the investment.

January 25

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

Jan 25 - 1:25:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (January 25, 1768).

“It is his Design to keep a full Assortment of the above Goods for his Customers untill they can be supplied on better Terms from our own manufacturing Towns.”

In January 1768 Gilbert Deblois stocked “A large Assortment of English and India GOODS” that had been “Imported in the last Ships from London & Bristol.” Even though his merchandise included “the most fashionable colour’d Broad Cloths,” “genteel figur’d Sattins,” and “newest fashion Ribbons,” an appeal emphasizing current tastes likely fell short with many local consumers. Even though his inventory included the “best Hair Plushes” and “best Manchester Checks,” an appeal to quality also likely failed to impress many local consumers. Even though he stocked an extensive array of goods, from “a large Collection of new fashion Stuffs” to “Baize of all widths and colors” to “a neat Assortment of plain and figur’d Silks,” an appeal to choice perhaps did not resonate with many local consumers.

Deblois deployed several of the most popular marketing strategies of the eighteenth century, but he was also savvy enough to realize that he needed to address the origins of the goods he attempted to sell to the residents of Boston and its hinterlands. He carried imported goods at the same time that colonists in Massachusetts and elsewhere had instituted non-importation agreements in response to both a continuing trade imbalance that benefited Britain and the imposition of new taxes on certain imported goods when the Townshend Act went into effect in late November 1767. In response, colonists resolved to encourage domestic production at every opportunity and purchase goods produced in North America whenever possible. Even if Deblois acquired his inventory prior to the non-importation pact going into effect at the beginning of the new year, his efforts to sell imported goods still violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement. Deblois, a Loyalist who eventually evacuated Boston with the British in March 1776, attempted to chart a careful course in selling his goods in 1768. He sought to avoid alienating potential customers of any political leanings.

To that end, he offered reassurances to prospective customers, claiming that “it is his Design to keep a full Assortment of the above Goods for his Customers untill they can be supplied on better Terms from our own manufacturing Towns.” Deblois suggested that he wanted to support the boycotts as much as possible, but he also took a pragmatic approach. The colonies, he argued, were not quite ready to supply themselves with the array of goods they had grown accustomed to importing from London, Bristol, and other British cities. Until domestic manufactures could keep up with local demand, he provided an important service, but he also implied that he would stock merchandise “from our own manufacturing Towns” when it became available. In addition to absolving Deblois of deviating from the non-importation agreement, this strategy also gave potential customers permission to rationalize their decisions to continue acquiring imported goods from his shop. After all, they were all in it together, at least as much as they could be.

Did most consumers find this marketing strategy appealing or convincing? Whether they did or not, Deblois considered it necessary given the political implications of participating in commerce and consumer culture in January 1768. Despite his own political views, he catered as much as he could to prevailing sentiments in his efforts to move his merchandise.

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.

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