What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Whatever Tobacco is sold by the Subscriber, has only the Marks B.M. on the Papers.”
Blaze Moore, a tobacconist in New York, had created a reputation for himself among consumers in the city. He had done so well that a competitor attempted to horn in on his success, passing off other tobacco as Moore’s. This prompted Moore to insert an advertisement in the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy to warn customers about the subterfuge perpetrated against him and, ultimately, against them as well.
Moore had practiced his trade in New York “for several Years past.” In that time, he had “acquired some Credit with his Tobacco,” establishing a reputation based on “his Care and Skill.” Proud of his work and not wanting it mistaken for that of any other tobacconist, he packaged it in tobacco papers marked with his initials, “B.M.” To some extent, he created a trademark intended to make it easy to identify his tobacco.
Yet that attempt to market tobacco that came from his workshop presented an opportunity for counterfeiting his product. Moore reported that other tobacconists had “manufactured and sold their Tobacco, with the Marks M.B.” and were “imposing it on the Publick” as his product. By switching the order of the initials, the counterfeiters devised nearly indistinguishable packaging that could easily confuse and fool customers who did not carefully examine it before making their purchases.
Moore suspected two possible motives. The unknown tobacconists may have been “envying his Success” and desired a boost to their sales with the fraudulent packaging. That would have been harmful enough to Moore’s business, but another explanation had the potential to be even more damaging. The counterfeiters could have been “coveting to take away his Bread and Credit.” The spurious tobacco not only deprived Moore of sales but also endangered his reputation. Acquiring an inferior product could convince duped customers not to obtain Moore’s tobacco when they made subsequent purchases. The harm to his reputation extended beyond losing out on a single sale; it imperiled his livelihood.
To combat the bogus tobacco distributed as his own, Moore used an advertisement to caution “all concerned” that his tobacco “has only the Marks B.M. on the Papers, and any other Mark with a Pretence of its being [Moore’s], is an Imposture.” He did what he could to warn customers, but depended on their care and vigilance as consumers to protect his interests while simultaneously protecting their own as they avoided unsavory competitors’ attempts to fool them.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Every bar that leaves the forges for the future will be stamped.”
Curtis Grubb and Peter Grubb were the victims of counterfeiters! The Grubbs produced and sold bar iron, but someone was passing off an inferior product that masqueraded as bar iron that came from their forge. To address the situation, the Grubbs inserted an advertisement in the supplement that accompanied the December 31, 1767, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.
In the process of describing how they had been “gros[s]ly imposed upon” by the impostors who peddled the fraudulent bar iron, the Grubbs also promoted the positive aspects of their own product. The bar iron falsely attributed to the Grubbs “was neither of so good a quality, nor so well drawn, as that which they have heretofore made, and do now make.” The spurious bar iron actually served as an endorsement of sorts: the counterfeiter and the unwitting buyers both acknowledged the quality of the Grubbs’ bar iron. The deception depended on the Grubbs having already established a reputation as producers of bar iron. The incident allowed them to further augment that reputation by publishing their tale in the public prints, positioning themselves as both victims and skilled producers of quality bar iron.
As a remedy to this imposition, the Grubbs devised a new means of protecting the stature of their product: “Notice is hereby given, that every bar that leaves the forges for the future will be stamped.” The Grubbs created a trademark for their bar iron; they literally marked their product to make it easily identifiable for customers who acquired it from third-party sellers. This modification benefited both producers and customers. Preventing further frauds meant that “the public [will] no longer [be] abused.” It also restored the reputation – or, as the Grubbs described it (twice), the “character” – of their bar iron.
When it came to counterfeit merchandise, eighteenth-century advertisements most often flagged the possibility of bogus patent medicines, but other products could also be imitated to the disadvantage of both the original producers and customers duped into buying something other than what they intended. In the case of bar iron, the Grubbs attempted to turn the situation to their advantage. They also devised a trademark that not only marketed their product but also helped to prevent similar incidents in the future.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Genuine Medicines to be sold in New-York, by GERARDUS DUYCKINCK Merchant, only.”
Several apothecaries operated shops in New York and advertised in the local newspapers in the spring of 1767, but they were not the only residents who sold medicines in the city. Gerardus Duyckinck, a merchant who ran the “UNIVERSAL STORE, Or the MEDLEY of GOODS … At the Sign of the Looking-Glass, and Druggist Pot,” also peddled remedies. As he was not an apothecary himself, he dressed up his advertisements with several sorts of puffery in order to compete with others who specialized in compounding drugs and selling patent medicines.
For instance, Duyckinck opened his advertisement with what appeared to be some sort of official proclamation that bestowed some degree of exclusivity on the merchant: “To the PUBLICK. By Virtue of the King’s Royal Patent for Great-Britain, Ireland, and the Plantations, for many Patent Medicines, to the Proprietors of each, to enjoy the full Benefit, are now sold under the Royal Sanction, by Messieurs William and Cluer Dicey, and Comp. of London, who now appoint their genuine Medicines to be sold in New-York, By GERARDUS DUYCKINCK Merchant, only.” Although the advertisement listed many tinctures and nostrums advertised and sold by several druggists and apothecaries in New York, the grandiloquent language implied that Duyckinck alone possessed the right to peddle those cures. Anyone else did so without official sanction.
This also allowed Duyckinck to warn readers against counterfeits and assure potential customers that he sold only authentic medicines. He did so in two ways. In a nota bene, he announced that all the drugs on his list had been “bought by William and Cluer Dicey, and Comp. from the original Ware-Houses, and warranted genuine.” In addition, he provided “Proper Directions to each … to avoid the Consequence of Counterfeits.” Duyckinck did not outright accuse his competitors of selling counterfeits, but the several aspects of his advertisement worked together to create doubts about the efficacy and authenticity of any medicines purchased from other vendors. Patent medicines were advertised far and wide in colonial newspapers. By inserting these enhancements to what otherwise would have been a standard list-style advertisement, Duyckinck devised a marketing strategy that distinguished him from his competitors.
 For this description of his store, see the other advertisement Duyckinck placed on June 4, 1767, a list-style notice of an assortment of imported goods in the New-York Journal. It briefly mentioned “Drugs and Medicines” near the end.
On April 14, 1777, the above advertisement appeared in Hugh Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Printed in New York City, which was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, the unusual advertisement alerted readers that anyone “going into the other Colonies” could buy “any Number of counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.”
Americans eagerly seized upon the advertisement as evidence of British support for the counterfeiting of Continental currency. Four days after its publication, George Washington wrote to Congress and included, among other intelligence, a copy of the advertisement, noting “that no Artifices are left untried by the Enemy to injure us.” When on May 12, the Connecticut Courant informed readers that two men had been taken north of New York City with quantities of counterfeit notes on them, it re-printed the advertisement, noting that “it seems they are tempted to follow this desperate employment by the terms offered in the following advertisement, taken from Hugh Gaine’s gazette.” The account of the counterfeiters’ capture and the re-printed advertisement subsequently appeared in newspapers throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia. By 1778, this one advertisement had been exaggerated into “weekly” and “repeated” advertisements in New York papers. Similarly, when nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians have weighed the possibility that the British sponsored counterfeiting, they have pointed to this advertisement as a smoking gun. The only problem with all of this? The advertisement is almost certainly a fake!
Counterfeit paper money proved a significant problem during the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, printing paper money was one of the only ways the Continental Congress could finance the war effort. Maintaining the integrity of the paper money was thus of the utmost importance. Counterfeiting, however, began from virtually the first emission of Continental bills by Congress in 1775. American newspapers were full of notices warning people about various counterfeits, both of Continental notes and notes printed by individual states. And it is clear that some of these counterfeits came from New York—for those with the skill to do it, the occupied city provided a perfect base of operations: British officials in New York had little incentive to prosecute people for producing the money of the rebel government.
While some people did produce counterfeits in the New York City, and likely sold them to others to pass, it seems unlikely that the advertisement in the New-York Gazette is a real advertisement for them. Appearing on the third page of the New-York Gazette, in form and in placement in the paper it looks much like any other advertisement. Though the items being sold are a bit unusual, the description of their quality seems like what we would expect from such a piece of marketing: the bills are “exactly executed” making “risque” of passing them minimal, as “proved” by the many that had already, according to the advertisement, been circulated. It’s the last line of the advertisement that raises suspicion: the hours to inquire are listed as “11 p.m. to 4 a.m.”—the middle of the night. Even more suspicious is the pseudonym given to direct enquiries to: Q.E.D., an abbreviation for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, a phrase typically used in mathematical proofs to indicate that what was set out to be proven has been proven.
So what exactly is going on here? Why would a loyalist newspaper run a counterfeit advertisement for counterfeit notes? And why was the advertisement re-printed and referenced so often by the Americans, despite the signs that it was a hoax?
As historian Benjamin Irvin has pointed out, Continental bills were widely ridiculed by British commentators. On October 28, 1776, for example, the same New-York Gazette that printed the counterfeit advertisement ran a mock wanted ad for Continental money:
In this context, it becomes easy to see the advertisement for counterfeits as a humorous piece meant to denigrate Congress’s paper money—it was not worth more, the notice implied, than the paper it was printed on. Perhaps, in a tongue-in-cheek way, it was a joking answer to assertions that American officials were beginning to make about British-sponsored counterfeiting; the reference to Q.E.D. certainly suggests that the advertisement might be playing with the idea. The counterfeit advertisement joined other items, ranging from poems about Continentals to reporting on their depreciation, that regularly appeared in New York papers during British occupation.
For American officials, however, the advertisement was the perfect polemical tool. The Continental had depreciated severely—by the end of 1777, the notes had lost 70 percent of their face value. In January 1777, Congress had been forced to pass a resolution maintaining that paper money should pass on par with gold and silver; they also urged states to put in place legal tender laws that would make it possible to prosecute those who did not accept paper money at its full value. As faith in Continentals waned and notices of counterfeits in American newspapers mounted, it became politically convenient to blame the British for the currency’s woes. As the war wore on, British counterfeiting became one of a series of accepted explanations for paper money’s depreciation and a common trope in articles that mocked or criticized the British, including a faux runaway advertisement for General William Howe, which included, in a list of his misdeeds, “being concerned in counterfeiting the currency of this Continent.”
Unpacking and tracing the history of this advertisement for counterfeit notes allows us to see the political significance of counterfeits during the American Revolution. In a loyalist paper, the advertisement served as a humorous commentary on the worthlessness of Continentals; in patriot hands, it became proof of a nefarious British plot to, as one commentator put it “cut the sinews of war.” It’s also a testament to the richness of early American advertisements—a form that could include humor and pointed political critique!
Katherine Smoak is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” recovers the importance of counterfeits to economic and political life in the eighteenth century.
 “From George Washington to John Hancock, 18–19 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0184 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 9, 28 March 1777 – 10 June 1777, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 201–204.
Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777 and reprints in Pennsylvania Gazette, May 14, 1777; Continental Journal, May 15, 1777; Providence Gazette, May 17, 1777; Boston Gazette and Country Journal, May 19, 1777. A version that condenses the story of the counterfeiters’ capture, but still reproduces the full advertisement, appears in Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), May 23, 1777.
 See Thomas Paine’s open letter to Howe in a 1778 pamphlet that remarks that there were “repeated advertisements of counterfeit money for sale,” The Crisis, Vol. 5 (Middleton, NJ, 1839), 135 and a letter printed in multiple newspapers describing the British’s behavior in America which observes they “weekly advertised their money for distribution in a New York paper.”
 Benjamin Irvin, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 92-96.
 Ben Baack, “Forging a Nation State: The Continental Congress and the Financing of the War of American Independence,” Economic History Review, LIV, 4 (2001): 643.