March 9

GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (March 9, 1769).

“LEMMONS new Fruit.”

Many kinds of fruit were considered a rare luxury in the eighteenth century, primarily only available for the wealthy. This was a direct result of where fruit grew and how people got it. Colonists had two options when it came to acquiring fruit: locally grown or imported, both of which were only available in season.

Colonists enjoyed fruit they introduced to North America, like apples and peaches, as well as indigenous plants that they had added to their diet, like strawberries, cherries, and grapes. Even with this variety, colonists had to settle for what could be grown in their specific climate or a particular time of year. John Crosby advertised another kind of fruit: lemons. As Mark Ziarko explains, “Naturally, tropical species like citrus fruits and pineapples became the zenith of the colonial fruit hierarchy. If someone really wanted to demonstrate their wealth, these imported fruits were the way to go.”

Because fruit was expensive to acquire, it became a form of showing status. Fresh fruit could be displayed on a fruit dish as decoration and as a status symbol. People who could afford fruit wanted to show it off to others. Fresh fruit was not always a practical purchase because it could be expensive and did not have a long shelf life. For colonial Americans, eating fresh fruit was more than just a tasty and healthy snack; it was a way to show wealth and class.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

John Crosby set up shop “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons, South-End” in Boston. In an era before standardized street numbers, colonists relied on various landmarks, including shop signs, to give directions and indicate locations. Many merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others purveyors of consumer goods and services erected signs to mark where they conducted business. Some tied the images they selected directly to their occupation, as John Crosby, “Lemmon-Trader,” did with his “Sign of the Basket of Lemmons,” but others chose distinctive images that did not necessarily testify to the merchandise they offered for sale.

Some advertisers did not incur the expense of having their own sign painted or carved. Instead, they treated signs posted by neighbors as landmarks to help guide prospective customers to their own shops. On the same day that Crosby inserted his advertisement in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Elias Dupee announced upcoming auctions at his “New AUCTION-ROOM” in the Boston Chronicle. Lest potential bidders confuse his establishment with any of the several other auction houses in the bustling port city, he offered extensive directions that included a shop sign: “Between the Swing and Draw-bridge, near the Golden-key, over Mr John Dupee Mathematical Instrument-maker’s shop.” Similarly, Hammatt and Brown sold imported groceries and housewares “near the Sign of the Cornfield, in Union-street.” According to his advertisement in the same issue of Boston Evening-Post as Hammatt and Brown’s notice, John Hunt hawked “a good Assortment of Ironmongery, Braizery, Cutlery and Pewter” at a shop located “next Door Northward of the Heart and Crown, in Cornhill.” The Heart and Crown happened to be the emblem that marked the printing shop operated by T. and J. Fleet, the publishers of the Boston Evening-Post. The image also appeared in the masthead of the newspaper, augmenting its familiarity to colonists in Boston.

Crosby’s advertisement does more than reveal what kinds of goods were offered for sale in Boston as spring approached in 1769. It also testifies to the sights colonists glimpsed as they traversed the streets of the city. Shop signs, like the “Basket of Lemmons,” decorated buildings while also aiding both residents and visitors as they made their way through the busy port. Some advertisers adopted the images depicted via their shop signs as brands that represented their businesses, but those signs first served other purposes in the visual landscape of Boston and other cities.

January 29

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 26, 1769).

“Sundry stolen Goods.”

News did not appear solely among the news items in eighteenth-century newspapers. Instead, several sorts of advertisements, including legal notices and estate notices, frequently covered the news, making readers aware of recent events in their communities and beyond. Advertisements concerning stolen goods also relayed news to readers. The last two advertisements in the January 26, 1769, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter did just that.

The first reported that on January 6 “sundry stolen Goods, the Property of Joshua Winslow & Son and John Rowe,” had been found concealed in the home of Thomas Vickers. In the wake of that discovery, Vickers had fled. The remainder of the advertisement, placed by Rowe, offered a description of his physical appearance and clothing. Rowe suggested that Vickers might try to escape Boston “on board some foreign bound Vessel,” alerting mariners and others to keep their eyes open for him on the docks. Rowe offered a reward to anyone who apprehended Vickers and presented him to Edmund Quincy, “Justice of Peace in Boston.”

The second advertisement also told the story of a theft, but this one perpetrated “by some evil-minded Person or Persons yet unknown.” Rather than a description of the thief, it provided descriptions of the items stolen from onboard the sloop “Wilkes, William Campbell, Master,” on January 9. The stolen goods included “One Piece check Linnen narrow strip’d, 32 Yards,” “Three Dozen Pair dark speckled Hose,” and “A Suit blue Broad-Cloth Cloaths, Waistcoast and Breeches.” Campbell hoped that descriptions of the goods would aid in capturing the thief as well as recovering the property he had lost.

These two advertisements appeared immediately below others placed by John Gerrish, Richard Smith, and William Jackson. Gerrish advertised an auction scheduled to take place the following day. Smith and Jackson both listed merchandise available at their stores. All three named wares that corresponded closely to the kinds of items stolen from aboard the Wilkes and presumably those discovered in Vickers’s house. In their efforts to participate in the consumer revolution, not all colonists acquired goods from merchants, shopkeepers, and auctioneers. Some stole them and other purchased items either knowing that they had been pilfered or not inquiring too carefully about their origins. A single column of advertisements in the Boston Weekly-Mercury reveals the spectrum of choices available to colonists when it came to acquiring consumer goods.

January 5

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 5, 1768).

“A Strong and healthy Negro MAN … addicted to be out of Nights.”

An advertisement in the January 5, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter offered a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN, about twenty Years old” for sale. The advertiser also proposed swapping the enslaved man “for a Negro Girl.” The notice did not offer many other details about the slave except to specify that he was “most suitable for the Country,” not because of any particular skills that he possessed but instead because he was “addicted to be out of Nights.” The anonymous advertiser implied that the enslaved man would be easier to manage when removed from an urban environment.

In that regard, this advertisement seeking to sell an enslaved man differed from most others that listed enslaved men, women, and children for sale. When describing why they intended to part with their human property, advertisers frequently declared that they were “for sale for no fault, but the want of employ” (as was the case in a notice that ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette on the same day). Other times advertisers reported that they were selling their possessions in advance of leaving the colony or provided other reasons that assured prospective buyers that the enslaved men, women, or children were not for sale because they were disobedient, disabled, or in poor health. This advertisement, on the other hand, did identify a fault, though one that could be managed in the right circumstances. In so doing, it offered a story of resistance not present in other advertisements that presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale.

Another category of advertisements concerning slaves regularly recounted stories of resistance. Advertisements for runaway slaves, as well as advertisements for captured fugitives who had been imprisoned, described their subjects in very different ways. Such advertisements purposefully adopted derogatory language, including adjectives like “cunning,” “artful,” and “bold” to report that runaways were intelligent, creative, and courageous. Advertisers offering slaves for sale avoided such disparaging characterizations or else risk scaring away buyers. The anonymous advertiser who wished to sell or exchange a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN,” however, apparently did not believe that he or she could avoid disclosing that the enslaved man was indeed sometimes difficult to control.

Read from the perspective of the enslaved man “addicted to be out of Nights,” this advertisement reveals an inquisitive young person who refused to be confined when a bustling port city offered so many possibilities for exploring and interacting with others outside of the supervision of the slaveholder. The friends and associates that he chose may have been as much a concern as his absence at nights. The unnamed “Strong and healthy Negro MAN” could have made a habit of departing in the evenings in order to be intentionally disruptive, fully realizing that such behavior inconvenienced and angered the slaveholder who perpetuated his bondage. That the advertiser did not sign the notice but instead instructed interested parties to “Enquire at Draper’s Printing Office” further suggests that the slaveholder did not want it widely known that he or she failed to exercise sufficient authority to keep the recalcitrant slave in check. Although advertisements for runaways categorically told stories of resistance, advertisements offering slaves for sale also sometimes related stories of resistance and challenges to the racial hierarchy in early America.

October 9

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

Oct 9 - 10:6:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 6, 1768).

“Strong and Small Malt Beer and Spruce, by the Barrel.”

In the fall of 1768 John Coleman advertised the several varieties of beer he sold at “his Brew House [at] the sign of the Green Dragon and Free Masons Arms, near the Mill Bridge” in Boston. He advised “Gentlem[e]n, Masters of Vessels, House keepers” and others that he brewed spruce beer and two sorts of malt beer, strong and small. His spruce beer may or may not have contained alcohol. Many consumers, including “Masters of Vessels,” purchased it as a means of warding off scurvy. His small beer contained less alcohol than strong beer. A safer alternative to water, some customers likely served small beer to children, servants, and other members of their households. Coleman marketed his beers in several quantities – “by the Barrel, half Barrel, Ten Gallons or Six” – and allowed his customers to choose according to their needs.

The brewer made many of the most common appeals that appeared in advertisements throughout the eighteenth century. He made an appeal to price, stating that he sold his beer “at the lowest Prices.” He also made an appeal to quality, stating that he brewed “as good Beer of both Kinds as the Country affords.” His beer was equal to any other produced in the colonies. In another regard, however, Coleman deviated from the marketing strategies deployed in most other advertisements of the era. For the convenience of his customers, he provided delivery service. He concluded with these instructions: “By leaving a Line mentioning the Kind, Quantity and where to be delivered” customers will have their beer “conveyed with the greatest Care and Speed.” Coleman provided an alternate address for placing such orders, “the sign of General Wolfe, the North Side of Faneuil Hall” rather than at “his Brew House.” Presumably customers could have also submitted orders at the latter as well; the additional location compounded the conveniences offered to them.

Coleman had previously advertised in the Boston Weekly News-Letter.   Just two months earlier he announced that his former partner, Benjamin Leigh, was so busy with his new enterprise running an “Intelligence Office” that Coleman now operated the brewery on his own. He called on prior customers to settle accounts and briefly mentioned the price of a barrel of beer. In this subsequent advertisement, however, he incorporated several new appeals intended to market his beer more effectively. Having assumed sole responsibility for the business, he may have determined that attracting customers demanded greater innovation.

August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:4:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 4, 1768).

“Mr. Benjamin Leigh meets so great Encouragement in the Intelligence Office.”

In late July 1768, Benjamin Leigh began advertising an “Intelligence Office” at the Green Dragon Tavern that he opened “For the Benefit of the Public.” According to David Van Arsdale, “Intelligence offices in British North America shared many similarities with their English forebears.” Among them, they “continued operating in close relation to coffeehouses and centers of investment and commodity exchange, and continued providing employment services to the unemployed and seekers of their labor.”[1] In addition, Leigh listed a variety of other services associated with intelligence offices. He practiced discretion when facilitating transactions between those who had “money to lend” and others seeking to borrow. He also introduced those with “Merchandize Goods, Vessels, Lands, Negroes or Servants to sell,” rent, or charter with buyers or tenants. Beyond providing “employment services,” the men who operated intelligence offices were enmeshed in the slave trade, trucking in enslaved men, women, and children who were the objects rather than the beneficiaries of the assistance they provided in the world of colonial commerce.

Van Arsdale comments briefly on efforts to promote intelligence offices in the public prints, noting that Leigh and his counterparts in the colonies followed the example set in London by continuing to generate business through advertising. By the time Leigh informed readers of multiple newspapers published in Boston of his intelligence office at the Green Dragon Tavern, John Coghill Knapp had been advertising his services to residents of New York for several years. His frequent notices became a fixture in several newspapers. Van Arsdale also indicates that those who ran intelligence offices “often advertised … the success of English office as a way of establishing credibility and conjuring up business.”[2]

Leigh did not adopt that strategy in his own advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter when he first opened his business, but evidence of the success of his new business did appear in advertisements printed elsewhere on the page. An advertisement placed by his former partner testified to the success of Leigh’s new endeavor. Shortly after Leigh began inserting his own notices, John Coleman, the “Proprietor of the Brewery at the Green-Dragon,” published a separate advertisement informing current and prospective customers that because Leigh “meets with so great Encouragement in the Intelligence Office” Coleman now ran the brewery on his own. In the August 4 edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Coleman’s notice appeared one column to the right and just above Leigh’s advertisement. The proximity made it that much easier for readers to connect the messages delivered in each. Unlike many of his counterparts in the colonies, Leigh did not attempt to convince prospective clients that they should avail themselves of his services because intelligence offices on the other side of the Atlantic delivered results. Instead, another entrepreneur in Boston asserted the early success of Leigh’s enterprise, assuring potential clients that the system did indeed work in that busy port city.

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[1] David Van Arsdale, The Poverty of Work: Selling Servant, Slave and Temporary Labor on the Free Market (Brill, 2016), 85.

[2] Van Arsdale, Poverty of Work, 86.

July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (July 28, 1768).

“THERE is now opened … an Intelligence Office.”

In the summer of 1768 B. Leigh announced that he had opened “an Intelligence Office” at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Rather than selling goods, Leigh traded in all sorts of information concerning local commerce. He offered to match “any Merchant, Masters of Vessels or others” with buyers for “any sort of Merchandize Goods, Vessels, Lands, Negroes or Servants.” Similarly, for those with “Vessels to Charter” or “Houses, Lands, Shops, Rooms or Lodgings” to rent, Leigh assisted in identifying potential tenants. He also introduced clients interested in borrowing and lending money. His services in that regard included drawing up agreements for both parties to sign. Although Leigh trucked in information, he assured prospective clients of his discretion when it came to borrowing and lending money. Finally, the “Intelligencer” provided employment services, introducing master artisans seeking assistance in their workshops to journeymen who needed jobs. Two shillings was the going rate for information at Leigh’s “Intelligence Office.”

Leigh traded many types of information that often appeared in advertisements. Colonists regularly advertised consumer goods, real estate, and servants and slaves for sale. They advertised vessels to charter and property to rent. Employment advertisements appeared frequently in the pages of colonial newspapers. Less often, colonists advertised that they sought to borrow or lend money, often doing so anonymously with instructions to “enquire of the printer.” Leigh demonstrated sound judgment in promising “the secret kept” when he facilitated such transactions.

Yet the “Intelligencer” did more than merely replicate the advertising pages of Boston’s newspapers. Advertisements of all sorts achieved their purpose only when the right audience read and acted on them. Leigh’s services left less to chance. He actively worked to match clients with particular needs with other clients who had complementary needs. In that regard, the “Intelligence Office” went a step beyond the printing office. Printers disseminated information widely. They also responded to direct inquiries that resulted from “enquire of the printer” advertisements. They did not, however, sift and collate the information that passed through their shops and flowed off their presses to target directly those most interested in specific opportunities offered in advertisements. Leigh offered an improvement over advertising, one that potentially left less to chance. Still, it depended on two parties with corresponding needs simultaneously seeking his services. Intelligence offices more efficiently managed the flow of information, but advertising made information more widely available. Both methods had advantages and shortcomings in the world of colonial commerce.

July 3

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

Jul 3 - 6:30:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (June 30, 1768).

“Jolley Allen, At his Shop almost opposite the Heart and Crown, in Cornhill, Boston.”

Almost without exception, shopkeeper Jolley Allen used bold visual elements to distinguish his advertisements from others that appeared in Boston’s newspapers in the late 1760s. Sometimes he arranged to have borders composed of printing ornaments surround his advertisements. Other times he dominated the page with lengthy list-style advertisements that included his name in a font that far exceeded the size of anything else printed in the newspaper. To add further interest, designs derived from printing ornaments flanked his name, making the graphic design elements of his advertisements even more distinctive.

Such was the case in the summer of 1768 when Allen once again published advertisements that filled two out of three columns on a page, this time in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. He had launched this strategy late in the previous summer. For the new iteration he maintained the format but updated the copy. In addition to the decorative elements that headlined his notice, he also inserted manicules to direct attention to specific merchandise or promotions. For instance, one manicule pointed to “Cotton Wool, very good and very cheap.” Another directed readers to “Choice Jamaica and other brown Sugars, by the barrel, hundred or smaller Quantity, some as low as 3s. O.T. per single pound, and cheaper by the Quantity.”

Allen even deployed double manicules – one at the beginning of the sentence and another at the end – to draw attention to the most significant appeals aimed at convincing readers to make their purchases from him. In one case, he proclaimed, “The above TEA is warranted of the best Kind, and if it proves otherwise, after trying it, will be taken back and the Money returned, by the said JOLLEY ALLEN.” The manicules made it less likely that prospective customers would miss this generous money-back guarantee. The advertisement concluded with an appeal reprinted from the previous iteration, this time with double manicules to draw greater attention. In it, Allen advised that his “Town and Country Customers, and others, may depend upon being supply’d with all the above Articles the Year round … as cheap in P[r]oportion as those which have the Prices fixed to them.” Unlike most merchants and shopkeepers, Allen did indicate prices for several items in his advertisement.

It might be tempting to dismiss the placement of the manicules and other visual aspects as haphazard or accidental, especially since compositors rather than advertisers generally determined the layout and other graphic design elements of advertisements. However, the consistency demonstrated in Allen’s advertisements from newspaper to newspaper suggests that he carefully consulted with compositors in order to achieve the visual elements important to him. Not all eighteenth-century advertisers left it to the printing office to determine how their notices would appear on the page.

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:16:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (June 16, 1768).

“A great Variety of Callicoes.”

Even though he advertised many of the same goods as other merchants and shopkeepers who placed notices in Boston’s newspapers in June 1768, Samuel Fletcher attempted to attract attention to his wares via the visual design of his advertisement in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Eighteenth-century advertisers often listed an assortment of goods that comprised their inventory, informing potential customers of a vast array of choices to suit their tastes and budgets. Most merchants and shopkeepers who published such advertisements simply listed their merchandise in dense paragraphs. Others experimented, perhaps with the encouragement of printers and compositors who better understood the possibilities, with arranging their goods in columns, listing only one or two items per line, in order to make the entire advertisement easier for readers to peruse.

Usually list-style advertisements broken into columns featured only two columns, but Fletcher’s advertisement in the June 16, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter had three, distinguishing it from others that appeared in the same publication that week. (Fletcher’s advertisement was the only one divided into columns in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, but two others in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette used columns to organize “A great Variety of English and India Goods.” For the purposes of this examination of these advertisements, I have classified Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter as only one publication because they were printed on a single broadsheet folded in half to create four pages, two of which comprised Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the other two the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Whether the boundaries between the two were permeable when it came to inserting advertisements requires further investigation, but Draper printed both and the same compositors presumably set type for both.) Caleb Blanchard and Samuel Eliot inserted lengthy advertisements that extensively listed scores of items, each advertisement divided down the middle to create two columns. Other newspapers published in Boston in the late 1760s often included advertisements that used this format, making it familiar to readers in the city and its hinterlands. Very rarely, however, did advertisements feature three columns.

As a result, the visual aspects of Fletcher’s advertisement made it stand out from others, even if nothing else about the list of goods distinguished it from the notices placed by his competitors. Fletcher made a brief appeal to price, noting that he “Sells cheap for Cash,” but primarily relied on the graphic design of his advertisement to direct readers to his advertisement as part of his effort to convince potential customers to visit his shop “Near the Draw-Bridge, BOSTON.”