May 24

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

Connecticut Journal (May 24, 1771).

“RUN away … a Negro Man named GLASGOW.”

Near the end of April 1770, Dover, an enslaved man, liberated himself from Nathaniel Sperry of New Haven.  As the anniversary of Dover making his escape approached, Sperry turned to the public prints to seek assistance in capturing Dover and returning him to bondage.  To that end, he placed an advertisement in which he described Dover and offered a reward in the Connecticut Journal.  On the night of May 7, 1771, another enslaved man, Glasgow, liberated himself from John Treat of Milford.  On the same night, “a Negro Man named ABEL” liberated himself from Gideon Platt, Jr., also of Milford.  Abel and Glasgow may have worked together to outsmart their enslavers and increase their chances of successfully escaping from their enslavers.  Platt and Treat placed separate advertisements in the Connecticut Journal, perhaps unaware of any possible connection until their notices appeared one after the other in the May 10, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Journal.

All three advertisements ran for three consecutive weeks, but their format shifted during that time.  On May 10, all three appeared in a single column on the final page.  The following week, however, the printers had more content than space, so they improvised by placing the advertisement about Abel in the left column on the second page and the advertisements about Dover and Glasgow in the right margin on the third page.  Since the type had already been set for these advertisements, the printers simply divided them into several columns that ran perpendicular to the other text on the page. Doing so conserved time and effort while also making using of available space since the printers had to make only one small revision, placing the town and date on the same line as John Treat’s name.  For the final appearance in the May 24 edition, all three advertisements returned to the regular columns, each of them reconstituted to their original format (save for the minor change to Treat’s advertisement about Glasgow).

Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Gazette, minimized the amount of effort required to run the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow for three consecutive weeks.  They adopted a common strategy of printing in the margins, a practice that tended to their own interests as entrepreneurs seeking to maximize revenues while reducing expenses.  In the process, they demonstrated their commitment to serving their customers by publishing notices submitted to their printing office, including notices about enslaved people who liberated themselves.  The Greens could have delayed publication of the advertisements about Abel, Dover, and Glasgow by a week, as other printers sometimes did when they had more content than space.  Instead, the Greens invested additional effort in publishing descriptions of the men, even as they conserved their own resources.  Reconfiguring the advertisements twice, even if not starting over on setting type each time, testified to their willingness to give customers access to the power of the press as a means of encouraging surveillance of Black people with the intention of capturing of enslaved people who liberated themselves.

September 6

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

“ROGER SHERMAN … has lately sent a Fresh Assortment of Goods there to the Care of Mrs. SARAH JOHNSON.”

Sep 6 - 9:6:1766 Connecticut Gazette
Connecticut Gazette (September 6, 1766).

Relative to the number of women who worked as shopkeepers or otherwise operated businesses of various sorts in eighteenth-century America, very few women placed advertisements to promote their endeavors and attract customers. As a matter of principle, I do not wish to further obscure women’s participation in the marketplace as producers and retailers on the supply side of the equation; all too often they are depicted merely as consumers on the demand side. Accordingly, I select advertisements placed by women as frequently as practical.

Today’s advertisement caught my attention because it promotes a business run by a woman, yet it was not placed by the woman herself. Sarah Johnson sold “a Fresh Assortment of Goods” in Wallingford, a town about a dozen miles outside of New Haven. Roger Sherman, however, placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Gazette to “acquaint his Customers at Wallingford” that Johnson sold those goods and provided discounts for customers who bought in volume. He also wanted potential customers in New Haven to know that he sold a similar “Assortment of Goods” on the same terms.

This advertisement raises questions about the arrangements Johnson and Sherman made. It appears that Johnson oversaw the day-to-day operations of the shop in Wallingford, including the necessary accounting and negotiating (as indicated when Sherman allowed for payment in “such other Species as may be agreed on” instead of cash). Yet she seems to have been an employee of some sort rather than a partner. What kind of stake did she have in the enterprise? Did she own any of the inventory she stocked? Did she earn commissions on the goods she sold? How much risk had she assumed compared to Sherman? How much autonomy did she exercise in selecting goods and setting prices? Did she participate in the decisions to offer discounts or to call in debts? Note that Sherman referred to customers Johnson served in Wallingford as “his Customers,” suggesting how he envisioned his relationship to both Johnson and their (his?) clients.

This advertisement acknowledges Sarah Johnson’s presence in the operation of a shop in Wallingford, Connecticut, but it does not fully elaborate on her position relative to Roger Sherman beyond suggesting that even though she participated in the marketplace she did so as a subordinate to Sherman. The advertisement, intended for public consumption, maintained the gender hierarchy of the period, regardless of whatever practices Johnson and Sherman devised outside the public eye.

July 27

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

Jul 27 - 7:26:1766 Connecticut Gazette
Connecticut Gazette (July 26, 1766).

“Proper allowance will be made to those who take a Quantity.”

Shopkeeper John MacCrackan promoted a deal, first on “BEST Bohea Tea” and later on all the merchandise he stocked and advertised, a “general Assortment of European and East-India GOODS.”

Eighteenth-century advertisements rarely listed prices (with the exception of subscription notices for books, magazines, and other printed items), but occasionally shopkeepers and others inserted the price of one or two items. MacCrackan led his advertisement with “BEST Bohea Tea at 6s. per pound.” Readers likely took note of the price; tea was such a popular commodity in the 1760s that many potential customers probably knew the going rate in their community, just as many modern Americans can recite the price of a gallon of gas on any given day. Accordingly, MacCrackan indicated the price of tea at his shop in order to announce that his customers got a deal. (Perhaps MacCrackan’s tea was even a so-called loss leader, an item priced below market value as a means of getting customers into the shop to then tempt them into purchasing other, more expensive wares.) At the very least, MacCrackan wanted readers to know that his price for tea was both reasonable and competitive.

The shopkeeper also made it attractive for customers to buy in bulk (thus increasing his revenue and turning over his inventory) when he noted that the price for tea would be “lower by the Quantity.” Near the end of the advertisement, he extended this offer to all of his merchandise: “Proper allowance will be made to those who take a Quantity.” Purchasing in volume yielded savings for customers.

This may have been most attractive to those who planned to purchase their own stock to resell, perhaps other shopkeepers in New Haven’s hinterland, some of the customers who may have paid in “Some Kinds of Country Produce.” However, MacCrackan sold goods both “Wholesale or Retail.” His advertisement suggest he was willing to negotiate with customers purchasing solely for their own household needs as well as those who intended to resell and further distribute this merchandise.

July 26

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

Jul 26 - 7:26:1766 Connecticut Gazette
Connecticut Gazette (July 26, 1766).

“LUKE BABCOCK, At his Shop in New Haven, has to sell … Nails, … Irish Linnens, … Raisins.”

Shopkeeper Luke Babcock’s list-style advertisement would have looked very familiar to colonial consumers. It did not elaborate much on the merchandise he stocked, except to not that Babcock sold his wares “at the most reasonable Rate.” The variety of goods – everything from “Brass Knobs” to “genuine black Barcelona Handkerchiefs” to “Lisbon Wine by the Quarter Cask” – comprised the advertisement’s primary marketing appeal, promising potential customers an assortment of choices. So many advertisers used this method of promoting their goods in eighteenth-century America that at a glance this advertisement appears indistinguishable from so many others.

On closer examination, however, it appears that Babcock introduced an innovation not readily apparent in advertisements published by many of his counterparts and competitors. His advertisement was carefully organized. Similar types of products were grouped together rather than appearing in an undifferentiated and disorienting list. Babcock first named hardware items, then textiles, and, finally, groceries. To make it even easier to navigate the advertisement, each major category had its own paragraph.

While this may seem like such common sense today that it should merit no comment, the format of this advertisement must be considered in the context of other eighteenth-century advertisements and the printing practices that shaped them. Babcock’s marketing may not have been flashy, but he attempted to make it more effective by helping readers better grasp the extent of his offerings and find merchandise that most interested them. It’s even possible that such careful organization on the printed page helped potential customers to imagine the layout of his shop, envisioning themselves examining the merchandise available in the section where hardware was stocked or in another area of the shop where textiles were displayed. Where other list-style advertisements often presented chaos, Babcock brought order to his goods, guiding consumers to the items they wanted or needed.