July 11

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

Jul 11 - 7:11:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (July 11, 1768).

“To be Particular in the different Species of said Assortment, would be Tedious.”

When Nathaniel Bird opened a new store on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1768, he stocked it with “a very large and general Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS, suitable for the Season.” Unlike many of his competitors in Newport and counterparts in other colonial cities and towns, Bird did not insert a list of merchandise in his advertisement as a demonstration of the vast choices available to prospective customers. Instead, he adopted a different strategy, one that was less common though not unknown. He advised readers that “To be Particular in the different Species of said Assortment, would be Tedious, and of Course Impertinent with the Publick.” He critiqued one of the standard practices of eighteenth-century advertising for consumer goods, the litany of items offered for sale. Depriving readers and potential customers of an extensive list, he argued, was actually a virtue. His advertisement did not intrude in the public prints any more than necessary to advise the residents of Newport and the surrounding area that he stocked an assortment of imported goods. This method also had the advantage of prompting readers to imagine how long the list might have been if Bird had instead chosen to publish it, an exercise that perhaps conjured consumer choice better than explicitly naming specific articles.

In the absence of a litany of goods, Bird developed other strategies for marketing his wares. He informed prospective customers that he “imports all his Goods direct from the Manufactories.” Some readers may have been skeptical about his ability to acquire everything in his “very large and general Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” directly from the producers, but others likely focused on the purpose of this pronouncement. Bird claimed that he eliminated English merchants and other middlemen who drove up prices. This was one factor that allowed him to sell his merchandise “very low, or as cheap as at Boston, or any of the other Governments.” Comparing prices in Newport to those in Boston was a particular concern of the smaller port’s merchants and shopkeepers at the time. Two columns over from Bird’s advertisement, Stephen Deblois, Jr., asserted that he sold similar goods “on as low Terms as they can be had at any Shop or Store in Boston.” Deblois also refrained from publishing a list that enumerated his inventory, but he did not offer any commentary of the sort Bird espoused concerning that decision.

Bird’s critique of list-style advertisements may have garnered additional attention for his own notice. Did consumers consider it an effective appeal? That cannot be determined from the advertisement alone, but Bird’s boldness in making the statement suggests an interest in playing with the accepted forms as a means of engaging prospective customers who might otherwise pass over advertisements that did not seem to offer any content out of the ordinary. Bird’s terse comments made his advertisement memorable, if nothing else.

May 14

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

May 14 - 5:14:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (May 14, 1767).

“They are much the same in all the Stores.”

Many eighteenth-century shopkeepers promoted their merchandise by publishing extensive lists of their inventory. They presented potential customers with a multitude of choices amongst the “general Assortment of English and India GOODS” they imported. Three shopkeepers – Joshua Blanchard, Joshua Gardner and Company, and Clement Jackson – each inserted list-style advertisements that extended half a column or more in the May 14, 1767, issue of the Massachusetts Gazette. Each named dozens of items that readers could purchase in their shops.

Nathaniel Appleton saw little sense in paying for such extensive advertisements, especially not when his competitors already did so. Yet he did not want to lose any prospective customers who might assume that his failure to list so many goods indicated that he had an inferior selection. To that end, he supplemented his assertion that he carried a “general Assortment” of goods with a nota bene that offered further explanation: “The Articles of English Goods are not enumerated, as they are much the same in all the Stores that import direct from LONDON.”

Appleton poked at his competitors, suggesting that one of the most popular marketing methods employed by other shopkeepers might be pointless. He carried the same goods as his competitors but had the good sense not to attempt to manipulate potential consumers with efforts to overwhelm them with extensive advertisements. He acknowledged standardization in consumer culture, noting that retailers generally depended on the same suppliers.

Appleton was not the only retailer to critique lengthy list-style advertisements. Just ten days earlier Gilbert Deblois’ advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post proclaimed that his inventory “consist[ed] of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements,” though that did not prevent him for providing an abbreviated list of his own. A couple of months earlier Benjamin Thurber and Edward Thurber inserted a notice in the Providence Gazette in which they announced that they stocked “too many [goods] … to enumerate each Particular in an Advertisement.” In addition, refusing to take on the costs of doing so allowed them to keep their prices low. At the beginning of the year, Joshua Blanchard deployed a similar argument as he lambasted the list-style advertisements published by his competitors: “The VERY LOW Price at which he sells will not afford a lengthy Advertisement, enumerating every Particular, even to Pins and Needles.” Blachard apparently had a change of heart. His lengthy advertisement “enumerating” dozens of items “Imported from LONDON” appeared immediately to the right of Appleton’s notice in the May 14 issue. Blanchard paid for his advertisement, but Appleton benefited from its proximity to his own.

Eighteenth-century advertisers like Appleton played with the conventions developing around consumer marketing, sometimes critiquing them if they thought doing so might result in some advantage or attract customers bored with the usual sorts of appeals.

January 1

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

jan-1-111767-massachusetts-gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 1, 1767.)

“The VERY LOW Price at which he sells will not afford a lengthy Advertisement.”

Joshua Blanchard did not have much patience for the sort of list advertisement that frequently appeared in colonial American newspapers. Retailers commonly made appeals to consumer choice, inserting lengthy lists of merchandise to underscore the extent of the choices they offered prospective customers. Accordingly, such advertisements took up significant space in many newspapers. Blanchard’s advertisement, for instance, appeared to the left of an advertisement placed by competitor Frederick William Geyer, an advertisement that extended most of the column and listed more than one-hundred items. Samuel Eliot inserted a similar advertisement on the previous page. Both retailers used extensive lists of goods to entice potential customers into their shops.

Blanchard took a different approach. Although he stated that he carried “a large and general Assortment of Goods,” he specified very few of them. Instead, in a separate paragraph, headed by a manicule, he proclaimed that “The VERY LOW Price at which he sells will not afford a lengthy Advertisement enumerating every Particular, even to Pins and Needles.” Blanchard considered the advertisements published by his competitors preposterous. He mocked their marketing strategies, but also cleverly dismissed extensive lists of merchandise by claiming that more modest advertising allowed him to offer lower prices to his customers. Eliot and Geyer promised “the very lowest Rates” and “the very lowest Advance,” but Blanchard called those claims into question when he suggested that listing their entire inventory, down to the smallest “Pins and Needles,” incurred significant advertising costs to be passed along to consumers.

Lest potential customers suspect that Blanchard did not provide a list of his merchandise because he could not offer the same array of choices as his competitors, he stressed that “his Friends and the Publick may be assured, that his Assortment consists perhaps of as many Articles, that are as good Goods, and will be sold as cheap for CASH, as at any Shop or Store in TOWN.” He folded together appeals to choice, quality, and price in his argument that a longer advertisement did not necessarily mean more merchandise on hand.

Joshua Blanchard made a virtue out of his shorter, more modest advertisement when he implied that his competitors could not compete with his prices because they purchased significant amounts of advertising space in the local newspapers. He needed to publish an advertisement to make this claim, an advertisement designed to shape the attitudes and actions of potential customers even as it critiqued other marketing practices.