April 15

GUEST CURATOR:  Kurt Falter

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

Apr 15 - 4:15:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 15, 1768).

“A few Cask choice Jamaica Sugar & Coffee.”

It is without question that coffee is far more popular drink in the United States than tea, but this was not always the case. During the colonial period, tea was the more preferred caffeine-oriented commodity due to its easy preparation, yet this is not to say that the coffee industry was absent from American culture at the time. Colonists imported some of their coffee from Jamaica, but it was never indigenous to that island; instead, in 1728 Sir Nicholas Lawes brought it over from Haiti. Jamaica’s warm climate made coffee cultivation plentiful and profitable. Approximately 12 million pounds of coffee was exported during the colonial era, making the Jamaican trade one of the largest providers of coffee to the British Empire. Unlike the roasted coffee beans or grinds sold today, usually only the recently picked and pre-roasted coffee beans were sold in colonial America, meaning that the purchaser would have to the roasting, grinding and brewing themselves.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Coffee, tea, and chocolate comprised a trio of exotic hot beverages popular in colonial America.  Many colonists drank these beverages at home, but men also gathered in public venues to consume them together.  As Kurt notes, tea became the most popular of those drinks – and arguably the most emblematic of the early American experience – but the venues that served them were known as coffeehouses.  Like many other aspects of English culture, colonists transported the concept of the coffeehouse across the Atlantic.

Men gathered in coffeehouses for a variety of purposes.  Some conducted business at these establishments.  Merchants and other traders met to make deals and settle accounts over a hot cup of coffee.  Both New York and Philadelphia had a Merchants’ Coffee House prior to the American Revolution, the name suggesting the type of clientele each sought to attract. Customers also gathered to discuss news and politics.  To that end, the proprietors provided several amenities, especially newspapers and pamphlets for their clients to peruse.  In addition to local newspapers, they also subscribed to publications from other cities, broadening the array of sources available to their patrons.  News concerning politics spread as men in coffeehouses read newspapers from near and far, often aloud to their companions, and then discussed current events and editorial pieces, including the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” that circulated in the wake of the Townshend Act. Merchants also visited coffeehouses to consult newspapers in hopes that the information they contained would guide them in making sound business decisions.

Yet men met at coffeehouses for reasons other than business and politics.  Coffeehouses were centers of sociability.  Customers gathered to converse with one another. As much as many of them liked to think of their discussions with friends and acquaintances as enlightened exchanges, they also tended to engage in gossip as well.  Women were excluded from coffeehouses, from conducting business, from discussing politics, from conversations that took place there, but that did not mean that one of the vices most frequently attributed to women – gossip – was absent from those homosocial spaces.  Men managed to trade stories, both fanciful and snide, without the influence of women, though they liked to pretend otherwise.

Coffee was more than a commodity sold for consumption within the household in eighteenth-century America.  Colonists also gathered in public spaces to drink this hot beverage together as they conducted business, debated politics, and socialized.  Like taverns, coffeehouses were important venues for exchanging information and ideas and, in turn, shaping American commerce and politics, in the era of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution.

March 29

GUEST CURATOR: Evan Sutherland

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

Mar 29 - 3:27:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 27, 1767).

“Best GREEN-COFFEE … Choice Bohea TEA.”

In colonial and Revolutionary America, coffee was available, but it was less accessible than tea or alcohol. Unlike tea, coffee had to be ground, which was something most colonists did not have as much time to do. So even though tea was more expensive than coffee, it took more time and labor to make coffee than tea. As a result, many colonists typically did not make coffee at home. Colonists who did make their own coffee showed their wealth when preparing or serving it, showing their privileged status.

Those who were not even able to afford tea turned to coffee substitutes. According to Christina Regelski, slaves made their own substitute coffee using ingredients from gardens such as cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and corn.

Tea also played an important role in the American Revolution. After Britain put stricter laws on imports, tea was taxed. Many colonists decided to boycott tea and give up one of the “luxuries that they had come to treasure.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

George Turner sold “A fine Assortment of English GOODS” as well as “Groceries of all Kinds” – including the coffee and tea examined by Evan – at his shop on Queen Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To attract customers, Turner launched some of the most common appeals used by eighteenth-century advertisers, especially appeals to price and quality, but he supplemented them with several others that found their ways into advertisements less often.

For instance, he advised “Town or Country Customers” that they could “depend upon being used as well by sending their Servants, as if present themselves.” Shopkeepers in port cities regularly indicated that they received and faithfully filled orders from customers in the countryside, an eighteenth-century version of mail order shopping. Turner put a bit of a twist on that means of selling his wares. In this case, he acknowledged that customers might send others – their servants – to shop on their behalf. Doing so potentially put customers at a disadvantage in commercial transactions, but Turner assured readers that he would treat fairly with their representatives in their absence. Potential customers need not worry about being fleeced by the shopkeeper when they sent surrogates to make purchases at his store. That he listed prices for several commodities (rum, sugar, coffee, “COTTON-WOOL”), a fairly uncommon practice in eighteenth-century advertisements, left less room for haggling or surprises at the moment of purchase. In a sense, this mechanized transactions by making it irrelevant who was actually present at the exchange.

In addition, Turner also pledged to barter provisions in exchange for “any of the above mention’d ARTICLES, at a Price proportionate to the aforesaid Prices,” even though he previously announced that he sold his wares “Cheap for CASH.” Although hesitant to extend credit, the shopkeeper did not rigidly insist that every transaction required cash. Instead, he provided potential customers an alternative.

Finally, Turner put a unique spin on his appeal to price: “It is needless to say said TURNER will Sell Cheaper than others, as that would be only questioning the Judgment of the Purchaser.” Apparently it was necessary to make this statement, but in doing so Turner turned it into a self-evident statement of fact. He also absolved himself from any possible accusations of wringing inflated prices out of customers by placing the onus on them. If they bought his wares at higher prices than those charged by his competitors, that was the result of their own poor judgment. Any attempt to question Turner’s fairness became an indictment of a customer’s own competence as a savvy consumer.

George Turner created a lively advertisement that merged some standard appeals with several uncommon arguments in favor of making purchases at his shop. At a glance, his advertisement looks similar to countless others printed in eighteenth-century newspapers, but on closer examination it reveals some of the innovative playfulness possible in advertising during the colonial and Revolutionary eras.

March 22

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 22 - 3:20:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 20, 1767).

Choice Green Coffee.”

When it comes to choices of drink when thinking of the colonial and Revolutionary eras, the first one that probably comes to mind is tea. This advertisement is interesting because it sold coffee instead. According to Christina Regelski, coffee was sometimes used as a way of showing wealth or status in the colonial era due to the expensiveness of producing the coffee grounds from the beans. In the southern colonies slaves were often in charge of grinding the coffee beans in the kitchens for their wealthy owners. Sadly, they had no access to the coffee they prepared.

Coffeehouses became hubs of information that could be accessed by many in the eighteenth century. Similar to taverns, men from any status and station could go to coffeehouses to drink coffee and discuss what was going on in their lives and their colony. John Adams even noted the importance of coffeehouses in a letter to James Warren in 1775: “the Debates, and Deliberations in Congress are impenetrable Secrets: but the Conversations in the City, and the Chatt of the Coffee house, are free, and open.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Some colonists very well may have encountered Noah Parker’s advertisement for “Choice Green Coffee” when they visited a coffeehouse, such as the Crown Coffeehouse on Queen Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the same issue that Parker hawked coffee, Isaac Williams placed an advertisement announcing that he had just opened the “CROWN Coffee-House” and provided many amenities for customers (including “the best of LIQUORS” and “large and small Entertainment, provided in the most genteel manner” in addition to coffee). At many eighteenth-century coffeehouses, the amenities included newspapers.

As Ceara notes, coffeehouses were hubs for exchanging information in the eighteenth century. Patrons certainly traded stories, but they also had access to newspapers the proprietors provided for their convenience and entertainment. Customers read newspapers to learn about politics and current events that affected their daily lives and commercial transactions. As a result, the advertisements that appeared in the New-Hampshire Gazette and other colonial newspapers had a far wider reach than just local subscribers. Visitors to the Crown Coffeehouse most likely had access to recent issues of many newspapers other than just the New-Hampshire Gazette, especially newspapers from Boston and other parts of New England, but also from elsewhere in the colonies, the Caribbean, and London. Similarly, coffeehouses in other colonial port cities also provided newspapers from near and far for patrons to consult.

In addition to sharing news and gossip, coffeehouses were also places to conduct business. Merchants gathered to settle accounts in comfortable surroundings. Vendue sales or auctions also took place in coffeehouses. Noah Parker may have visited the Crown Coffeehouse to meet with associates interested in purchasing the various commodities he listed in his advertisement. Despite the atmosphere of gentility that Williams and other proprietors cultivated, coffeehouses were also sometimes the venue for buying and selling slaves. Although not as rowdy as taverns, coffeehouses were busy places for exchanging information and conducting business in the era of the Revolution.