July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:14:1768 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (July 14, 1768).
“He will sell without Exception, as cheap as can bough at any Shop or Store in Town.”

Consumers in Boston had many choices when it came to shopping in the busy port city in the late 1760s. Numerous merchants and shopkeepers regularly advertised in the several newspapers published in Boston. Many others ran shops without promoting their wares in the public prints. This multitude of retailers presented colonists with opportunities to engage in comparison shopping in order to find the best deals on the merchandise they wished to purchase.

William Gale attempted to streamline the process for readers of the Massachusetts Gazette. When he advertised his “general Assortment of English and India Goods” he made a bold proclamation about his prices. Gale declared that “he will sell without Exception, as cheap as can be bought at any Shop or Store in Town.” The shopkeeper likely did not expect prospective customers merely to accept his claim; he probably expected that most would visit other shops to confirm that he did indeed offer the best deals or, at the very least, competitive prices. Expecting readers to be skeptical, he intended for them to consider his shop and the potential bargains when making their decisions about which retailers to visit.

In addition to promoting low prices, Gale may have also offered price matching for customers who found better values elsewhere. If he wished to honor the promises he made in print then he would have had to lower his prices if shoppers informed him of better deals offered by his competitors. Shopkeepers and customers expected to haggle with each other, so Gale may have anticipated price matching in order to “sell without Exception, as cheap as can be bought at any Shop or Store in Town” as part of the negotiations.

Retailers and other advertisers commonly made appeals to price throughout the eighteenth century. Some simply mentioned low prices, but others, including Gale, made other claims intended to further distinguish their prices from those of others who sold similar merchandise.

March 28

GUEST CURATOR: Evan Sutherland

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

Mar 28 - 3:27:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 27, 1767).

“CROWN Coffee-House.”

According to Colonial Williamsburg, coffeehouses in the eighteenth century were “information centers and forums for debate and discussion.” Coffeehouses were places where people had conversations with others. Most coffeehouses were not limited to serving just coffee, but provided tea and chocolate as well. Some coffeehouses served alcoholic drinks as well, including the “ALE, PUNCH, WINE, &c.” at Isaac Williams’s Crown Coffeehouse. Coffeehouses that did not serve alcoholic drinks sometimes struggled to compete with those that did. Coffee, states Steven Topik, was often dismissed as an unnecessary luxury.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Isaac Williams issued a challenge to the readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Rather than simply announce that he stocked and served “the best of LIQUORS” for his patrons at the Crown Coffeehouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he dared them to “be so kind as to call and judge for themselves, whether his ALE, PUNCH, WINE, &c. is not as good as at other public Houses.” Advertisers in the eighteenth century, like their counterparts today, engaged in a complicated dance with potential customers. They made claims that they wanted readers to believe, often offering assurances of their validity and trustworthiness, but they also expected potential customers to greet their appeals with some skepticism. Williams acknowledged as much, insisting that he “would not have them take his Word.” Instead, he craftily invited comparisons with other establishments. Readers could not make such comparisons, however, unless they actually became customers and sampled the offerings at the Crown on Queen Street.

Once he got them through the doors, Williams promised a variety of amenities in addition to the “best of Liquors.” In addition to the quality of the beverages, “Gentlemen” experienced a refined atmosphere that included “large and small Entertainment, provided in the most genteel manner.” Such entertainment may have included performances by any of the variety of itinerants that Peter Benes examines his recent book, For a Short Time Only: Itinerants and the Resurgence of Popular Culture in Early America. Musicians, singers, magic lanternists, puppeteers, actors, and conjurers all performed in American taverns and coffeehouses throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition, the advertisement indicated that Williams likely completed renovations to make his coffeehouse a comfortable space for men to gather, drink, gossip, conduct business, discuss politics and current events, watch performers, and exchange information. To that end, he invested “considerable Expence … in making his House convenient” for the entertainment of his patrons.

From the liquor, coffee, and food to entertainment, furnishings, and service, Isaac Williams described an atmosphere that could only be truly appreciated by experiencing it. He prompted readers to imagine themselves drinking and socializing at the Queen, making it more likely that some would accept his challenge to visit and “judge for themselves” whether his coffeehouse compared favorably to other public houses.