September 12

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

Sep 12 - 9:12:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 12, 1767).

The useful and necessary Business of Printing in this Town.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, printers regularly turned to the pages of their own newspapers to insert notices calling on subscribers (and sometimes advertisers) to settle their accounts by paying their overdue bills. Printers often accompanied these reminders with threats to sue recalcitrant subscribers who did not respond.

Sarah Goddard and Company took a different approach when they called on “all those who have not yet settled for the last Year’s Papers.” First, they extended their “most sincere Thanks” to all subscribers, but then lauded the “Example of those who have already paid.” The printers pointed to them as role models to emulate; in so doing, they also implicitly shamed their counterparts who had not yet paid.

In addition, Goddard and Company suggested that the future of their printing business depended on settling accounts, yet it was not only their own livelihood at stake. Instead, the entire community benefitted from the “useful and necessary Business of Printing” undertaken by Goddard and Company. They positioned the Providence Gazette, revived thirteen months earlier after a hiatus that had lasted more than a year, as a public service, one that had met with great approval. More than just a service, the printers proclaimed that their newspaper was “absolutely necessary for many of the most useful Members of Society amongst us.”

Goddard and Company could have wheedled subscribers and threatened legal action. Instead, they asked readers to consider the benefits associated with the continuation of the Providence Gazette. They anticipated that such idealistic appeals would “enduce all our former Subscribers” to renew their commitment to the publication through a “Continuance of their past Favors.” They also expected this argument to convince others who had not previously subscribed to “encourage this Work.” Rather than inserting an ugly admonition, Goddard and Company challenged the community to provide “ready Assistance” and join in common cause in “promoting the Growth and extending the Progress of our Gazette” for the benefit of its printers and readers alike.

July 10

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

Jul 10 - 7:10:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 10, 1767).

“All Persons, who send Advertisements to this Press, would at the same Time send pay with them.”

Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle inserted this notice in the final column of the July 10, 1767, issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette. In it, they instructed that “all Persons, who send Advertisements to this Press” should “at the same Time send pay with them.” In making this request, the Fowles addressed two common questions about eighteenth-century newspaper advertising. Who wrote the advertisements? Did printers make money from advertising?

By comparing text and typography in advertisements published in multiple newspapers, it appears that advertisers wrote the copy and printers took primary responsibility for format and layout (though some exceptional advertisers also participated in designing the visual aspects of their own notices). The Fowles seem to confirm that advertisers composed the text, though they do not address the question of layout. Advertisers possibly sent along instructions, though the printers would have preferred payment instead.

This notice does not definitively answer whether advertising turned profits for printers, but it does cast light on some of their standard practices and challenges. The Fowles threatened not to insert any advertisements delivered without payment. They were “determined not to Charge any more” because extending credit was more hassle than it was worth. They had learned through unfortunate experience “the Trouble of keeping a great number of small Accounts which but few ever think worth Discharging.”

Historians of eighteenth-century printers have long argued that newspapers did not make money from subscriptions, that profits derived from advertising. This notice, however, suggests that in some cases – or “a great number” of cases, to borrow the Fowles’ phrase – advertising was no more likely to turn a profit than selling subscriptions. Colonists purchased advertising on credit, just as they participated in the consumer revolution by buying on credit. Sometimes they paid in a timely manner, but, if the Fowles were to be believed, quite often they were delinquent in settling their accounts. Historians of print culture cannot assume that advertisements published in eighteenth-century newspapers always generated revenues for the printers.

April 4

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 4 - 4:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 4, 1767).

“Said OLNEY has a few goods remaining yet unsold, which he will sell cheap for cash.”

I chose this advertisement because it piqued my interest. Despite the short nature of the consumer portion it reminded me of something important. Throughout navigating newspapers and collecting advertisements I have seen plenty of advertisements that talked about selling for cash or making deals with good credit. But one thing I never really thought about was the actual currency of colonial America. What was this cash? Was there a uniform currency accepted throughout all the colonies? Was money mostly coins or paper?

I did some research into it. Currency, as it happens, had a great variety in eighteenth-century America. There was no one type of universal payment; instead, there was an astounding diversity. Ron Michener discusses this confusing system of currency in the colonies. “The monetary arrangements in use in America before the Revolution were extremely varied. Each colony had its own conventions, tender laws, and coin ratings, and each issued its own paper money.” The customs regarding payment were specific to each colony. For example, in 1750 Massachusetts prohibited the use of paper money. Anything other than “specie,” gold or silver coinage, was utterly valueless there.

Also, colonists could not travel from New Jersey to Rhode Island, for instance, and expect to buy something using printed currency. They had to engage in some type of exchange prior to payment. In addition, throughout the colonies, foreign currency continued to be accepted as legal payment: “Colonists assigned local currency values to foreign specie coins circulating there in … pounds, shillings and pence.” These coins could include British or Spanish money. This caused a lot of irregularity in transactions because, depending on location, the amount stated could be measured using one type of specie or currency, and the buyer could use another type of payment. For example, a seller could ask for five South Carolina dollars for an item, and the buyer could then pay in Spanish specie. There must have been a lot of confusion and mathematical calculations happening in that era!

Over the course of my exploration I realized that there were many different types of money exchanged for goods and which coins or bills were accepted really depended on the location and year, The use of cash in America is not as simple as I originally thought; it has a long and complicated history.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Extensive networks of credit facilitated the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Even as merchants and shopkeepers attempted to incite greater demand (as Joseph Olney, Jr., did when he announced he had “a few goods remaining yet unsold), their advertisements testified to generous credit they extended to customers who obtained the “baubles of Britain” from them. Merchants and shopkeepers were middlemen and –women, often caught in expanding transatlantic webs of credit themselves. Note that Olney justified his decision to call in the debts owed to him by explaining that doing so was a necessity so that he, in turn, would be “enabled to discharge all demands that lay against himself.” Just as his customers owed him money, Olney was indebted to those who supplied him with the merchandise he sold.

Like many others who placed similar notices in the 1760s, Olney seized an opportunity to generate more revenue by following his request for payment with a brief promotion of his current inventory. In almost every example, the advertisers suggested that they were no longer in the business of extending credit to customers. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem, especially considering that earlier in the advertisement Olney threatened legal action against anyone who “refuse[d] to comply with this reasonable request” for payment. Because Olney wanted to spare himself the hassle of making “trouble at next June court,” he indicated that he would sell his remaining goods “for cash.” He made no mention of any form of credit, whether “by Note, Book Account, or otherwise.”

Olney’s advertisement was much less striking than many others that included extensive lists of merchandise or made elaborate appeals to potential customers. It served a necessary purpose, however, as he went about operating his business, just as similar advertisements did for his counterparts and competitors throughout the colonies.

June 14

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

Jun 14 - 6:13:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 13, 1766).

“Those who fail complying may depend upon being sued.”

Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans frequently placed advertisements advising their customers to settle their debts or face the consequences. Both the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century and the colonial economy operated on credit, often webs of credit that extended far beyond consumers and the retailers who sold them goods. Those same retailers had often procured imported goods from English merchants on credit themselves. Hard money was fairly rare in the colonies, often making credit a necessary substitute. Yet extending credit had its risks. Producers, suppliers, and retailers might never receive payment. Consumers might find themselves hauled into court when they did not pay.

Thomas Craig expressed exasperation in his advertisement calling on “those who have been dilatory in paying off their accounts to discharge them.” He wanted to receive payment while the current court was sitting. While this might have seemed like short notice to some, he reminded them that he had “long before now advertised” that the “present state of my affairs makes it absolutely necessary” to settle accounts.

Still, Craig depended on the good will of customers to continue to earn a living. He knew enough about customer service to attempt to mediate any offense he might have given to “good and punctual customers” by offering a nota bene that emphasized that his advertisement was not directed at them. He needed payment from others, but he did not want to risk alienating those who settled their accounts in a timely fashion.