What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“GOODS cheaper than the cheapest.”
William Vans ran a “Variety-Shop” in Salem in the early 1770s. To incite interest in his wares, he regularly advertised in the Essex Gazette. He often mentioned his low prices, comparing them to what consumers could expect to pay for the same merchandise in other shops. For instance, in May 1771 he proclaimed that he sold his wares “as cheap as any Store in Town.” Eighteen months later, he enhanced a similar appeal to price with a headline that made his marketing pitch. “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest” appeared at the top of his advertisement in the November 10, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette. Vans intended the meaning of “cheap” as understood in the eighteenth century, promoting inexpensive wares without suggesting that low prices indicated inferior quality. In the introduction to his extensive inventory, Vans declared that he set prices “as cheap or cheaper … than at any Shop in the County,” deciding to give his assertion more weight by expanding it beyond “any Store in Town.”
That Vans devised a headline with a marketing message distinguished his advertisement from others in the same issue. William Scott advertised the “Essence of Pearl, and Pearl Dentifrice,” the toothpaste created by Jacob Hemet, “DENTIST to her Majesty, the Princess Amelia,” that he sold at his shop. A headline that advised the product was “For the TEETH and GUMS” appeared at the beginning of the advertisement, but it did not make an explicit marketing appeal like Vans’s headline. Most merchants and shopkeepers used their names, printed in larger font, as headlines. Such was the case for John Appleton, “John & Andw. Cabot,” George Deblois, John Dyson, Samuel Flagg, Stephen Higginson, John Prince, and others. Van’s name received similar treatment, but below the “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest” headline. Some of those merchants and shopkeepers did make appeals to price in the introductions that came before their lists of merchandise. Deblois, for instance, declared that “he will sell as cheap as is sold in any Shop or Store in Town, and as low as is sold in Boston, or elsewhere.” John Appleton stated that “he is determined to sell at such very low Rates … as cannot fail to give full Satisfaction to every reasonable Purchaser.” Those advertisers made appeals to price, but prospective customers encountered them only after wading into those notices. Consumers did not have to read the smaller print in Vans’s advertisement to know that he claimed to sell “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest.” In this instance, the format certainly enhanced the message.