August 25

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

Aug 25 - 8:25:1769 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 25, 1769).

“Work done as well as in any other Part of New-England.”

Even though he operated a shop in the relatively small town of New London, goldsmith and jeweler Robert Douglass, Jr., sought to convince prospective customers that he provided goods and services that rivaled those offered by his counterparts in larger cities. In an advertisement inserted in the August 25, 1769, edition of the New-London Gazette, he emphasized that he “makes and sells all Kinds of Goldsmith’s and Jeweller’s Work, as cheap as can be bought in Boston or New-York.” Prospective customers did not need to send away to shops in those busy ports to find good deals, nor did they need to suspect that Douglass engaged in price gouging as a result of being some distance from urban centers with greater numbers of goldsmiths and jewelers who kept down their prices as they competed with each other.

In addition to making an appeal to price, Douglass pledged that “Whoever will please to favour [him] with their Custom, may depend on having their Work done as well as in any other Part of New-England.” Prospective customers also did not have to fret that they sacrificed quality when they chose to deal with a local goldsmith and jeweler. Douglass positioned his skills and expertise in direct competition with his counterparts in Newport, Portsmouth, Providence, and even Boston. Having invoked New York when it came to price, he also implied that his work rivaled that done by goldsmiths and jewelers there.

To further entice prospective clients to visit his shop, Douglass introduced a new employee. James Watson, “who makes and repairs all Kinds of Clocks and Watches in the neatest and best Manner,” had just arrived from London. His presence in Douglass’s shop linked it to the most cosmopolitan city in the British Empire. Local customers did not have to worry that they had settled for what was available when they visited Douglass’s shop. Instead, the goldsmith and jeweler suggested, they patronized an establishment on par with those in the largest cities in the colonies and even the metropolis of London. Despite ongoing disputes over the Townshend Acts, many colonial consumers still looked to London as a center of taste and gentility.

Douglass incorporated several common marketing strategies in his advertisement: price, quality, and connections to the most cosmopolitan city in the empire. He adapted each appeal to address anxieties about hiring a goldsmith and jeweler located in a small town, assuring prospective customers that the goods and services from his shop matched those from other shops in larger towns and cities. Local customers did not need to look beyond New London to discover remarkable value when they wished to hire a goldsmith, jeweler, or watchmaker.

January 11

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

jan-11-1111767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (January 10, 1767).

He intends to sell on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town.”

Eighteenth-century shopkeepers and artisans frequently made appeals to price in their advertisements, but they usually did not elaborate much beyond a few words or phrases assuring prospective customers that they charged “low rates” for their merchandise. On occasion, some advertisers, like Jabez Peirce, elaborated on this theme. He confidently proclaimed that he sold his “fresh assortment of European goods … on as reasonable terms as any Person in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” While he did not explicitly state that he offered low prices, he informed potential customers that they would not find better deals anywhere else around town.

In this regard, he adopted language similar to what appeared in other advertisements published in the Providence Gazette in recent weeks. In the previous issue, Elihu Robinson, a hatter, announced that he sold his wares “as Cheap for Cash, as … any Person in this Town.” Similarly, James Green pledged that he priced his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town.” Both Robinson and Green also favorably compared their prices to those in other places (indicating that consumers might travel to do some of their shopping or order goods from shopkeepers via the post, a service mentioned fairly regularly in advertisements). Robinson mentioned Boston and New York by name, but Green used the same phrase as Peirce: “neighbouring governments.”

Many advertisers used formulaic language in their commercial notices in the eighteenth century, which caused many advertisements to take on a standardized appearance (at least at first glance; close and careful reading yields variations, innovations, and attempts to distinguish some advertisements from the bulk of others that appeared on the page). That many printers preferred specific formats for fonts, sizes, and spacing when laying out advertisements for their own publications further contributed to creating a static visual culture of advertising within the pages of many newspapers. At a glance, graphic design and formulaic language made many advertisements appear indistinguishable.

Peirce’s advertisement is interesting and significant because it demonstrates how advertisers made the same appeals as their competitors, often even resorting to the same language, while simultaneously illustrating that unique appeals sometimes emerged in specific places and were quickly adopted by multiple advertisers. Although several advertisements in the Providence Gazette in early 1767 stressed the lowest prices in town, advertisers in other cities throughout the colonies universally relied on more general assertions about low prices, if they made appeals to price at all. Similarly, only advertisers in Providence showed any concern about local residents obtaining goods from competitors in “neighbouring governments.”

How long did that trend last? Did it eventually appear in advertisements published in other cities? Jabez Peirce’s advertisement raises interesting questions even as it further establishes a pattern in the Providence Gazette.

November 24

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

What was advertised in an American newspaper 250 years ago today?

nov-24-11241766-boston-evening-post-supplement
Supplement to the Boston Evening-Post (November 24, 1766).

“A general assortment of GOODS, suitable for the Season.”

In this advertisement Baker and Bridgham marketed imported goods “suitable for the Season.” They sold a wide variety of fabrics and accessories that appealed to men, women, and children. They also had a lot of competition for the goods they sold. There were at least ten other advertisements that were almost the same in that newspaper. Other stores sold nearly the same products.

Compared to local shopkeepers in small towns, Baker and Bridgham had it much tougher. Those local stores were better known to residents. One online encyclopedia states, “Country storekeepers became important figures in their communities because they were the primary source for goods and information about the outside world.” Compared to country shopkeepers, Baker and Bridgham had to constantly advertise themselves, because in the cities colonists did not always know all the shops. Country shopkeepers did not have as much competition as Baker and Bridgham and other shopkeepers in Boston did.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Patrick asserts, Baker and Bridgham certainly faced competition for customers from other merchants and shopkeepers in Boston. I would like to build on the work that Patrick has already done by providing a complete census of newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services in Boston on November 24, 1766, in order to underscore Patrick’s main argument. (Note: I have tabulated only the advertisements for consumer goods and services. Other sorts of advertising, such as ships departing and legal notices, appeared alongside them).

In addition to its regular four-page issue, the Boston Evening-Post published a two-page supplement on November 24. As was often the case in such instance, about half of the supplement consisted of news and the other half of advertising. Overall, ten advertisements for consumer goods and services appeared in the regular issue and another thirteen, including Baker and Bridgham’s advertisement, in the supplement. T. and J. Fleet printed twenty-three newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services that week.

nov-24-11241766-boston-post-boy
Boston Post-Boy (November 24, 1766).

Yet the story does not end there. Four newspapers were printed in Boston in 1766. Two others, the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy, were published on the same day as the Boston Evening-Post. Turning to them yields another ten advertisements for consumer goods and services in the Boston-Gazette and sixteen more in its supplement, as well as fourteen additional advertisements in the Boston Post-Boy. (The Boston Post-Boy had an abbreviated version of Baker and Bridgham’s advertisement.) That amounts to another forty advertisements, twenty-six in the Boston-Gazette and fourteen in the Boston Post-Boy. Although three of Boston’s newspapers were distributed on Mondays, the Massachusetts Gazette found its ways to readers on Thursdays. Its most recent issue from November 20 included twenty-three advertisements for consumer goods and services in the regular issue and another four in an extraordinary, for a total of twenty-seven. (The Massachusetts Gazette featured Baker and Bridgham’s advertisement in its entirety.)

nov-24-11201766-massachusetts-gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (November 20, 1766).

This means that residents of Boston had access to ninety newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services recently printed in local newspapers at the time that Baker and Bridgham’s advertisement appeared in the Boston Evening-Post on November 24, 1766. In contrast, many of the newspapers from smaller towns ran just a handful of advertisements by shopkeepers and merchants promoting imported wares and other consumer goods and services. Competition for customers in urban ports certainly made advertising seem like a necessity to shopkeepers like Baker and Bridgham.

Even as American celebrate Thanksgiving today, many will already be thinking of the holiday season and the rampant consumption that accompanies it. Today’s holiday will be immediately followed by “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.” Critics will inevitably lament the rise of consumerism in America. The newspapers published 250 years ago today, however, suggest that a vibrant consumer culture has been a central part of American life since before the Revolution.