March 3

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

Pennsylvania Journal (March 3, 1773).

“ALL kinds of ribbons, which he will sell for cash at 65 per cent, on sterling cost.”

David Shakespear marketed “ALL kinds of ribbons” and “sundry other dry Goods, hardware, jewellery,” and other merchandise in advertisements that ran in the Pennsylvania Journal in February and March 1773.  He did not, however, invite consumers to browse his wares and make purchases.  Instead, he made clear that he restricted his commercial activities to wholesale transactions.  He addressed “City and Country Shopkeepers” in his notice.

In promoting his selection of ribbons, an especially popular accessory for enhancing garments, millinery, and women’s elaborate hairstyles, Shakespear informed prospective buyers that he “will sell for cash at 65 per cent, on sterling cost.”  He apparently believed that such transparency would entice “City and Country Shopkeepers” to do business with him, provided that they had the cash to take advantage of the bargain prices he charged.  Given the discount, it made sense that Shakespear wished to sell by volume to retailers rather than deal directly with consumers who made smaller purchases.

He outlined his business model, stating that he “purposes to continue importing to sell by wholesale only” and “hopes that the small advance put on [his wares], will recommend him to the custom of the City and Country Shopkeepers.”  Shakespear envisioned distributing his inventory throughout Philadelphia, a bustling urban port and the largest city in the colonies, and towns in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland.  He provided an alternative to doing business with English merchants in London, positioning himself as a middleman who offered deals that allowed retailers who made wholesale purchases from him to pass along the savings to their own customers.

Although Shakespear mentioned the discount only in relation to ribbons, he may have anticipated that prospective customers would associate bargain rates with his other merchandise.  Even if those deals for dry goods, hardware, and other items were not as generous as his prices for ribbons, some of those “City and Country Shopkeepers” may have anticipated that they could negotiate with Shakespear for favorable prices.  His advertisement signaled that he was open to such overtures.

September 20

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

South-Carolina Gazette (September 20, 1770).

“Such Articles as the Resolutions of the Inhabitants of this Province will admit of.”

As summer turned to fall in 1770, Brian Cape advertised “a tolerable Assortment of Goods” for sale in the South-Carolina Gazette.  This unusual description, “a tolerable Assortment,” had at least two meanings.  Like their counterparts in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the merchants of South Carolina enacted nonimportation agreements to protest duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts.  Cape assured prospective customers that he carried “such Articles as the Resolutions of the Inhabitants of this Province will admit of.”  In that sense, his merchandise was “tolerable” according to the standards adopted by the community.  It was also “tolerable” in the sense that it was as extensive as could be expected under the circumstances.  Consumers grew accustomed to vast arrays of choices in the eighteenth century.  Nonimportation agreements constrained those choices, but Cape suggested that the ability and pick and choose had not been eliminated at his shop.

He also vowed that prospective customers would not encounter exorbitant prices for his “tolerable Assortment of Goods” as the result of scarcity caused by the nonimportation agreement.  Indeed, scarcity may have been a relative term since many merchants and shopkeepers seized the opportunity to sell inventory that had lingered on their shelves and in their storerooms.  Cape asserted that he sold his wares “at moderate Prices” that were fair to consumers.  He also included a nota bene that offered a special bargain: “Ten per Cent will be discounted for ready Money.”  In other words, he rewarded customers who paid in cash rather than credit with significant savings.  Credit was one of the primary features that made the consumer revolution possible in the eighteenth century, yet it could be tricky to manage.  Merchants and shopkeepers frequently placed advertisements calling on customers to settle accounts or face legal action.  Cape presented an opportunity to avoid future troubles by paying with “ready Money” from the start.

Compared to modern marketing campaigns, eighteenth-century advertisements have sometimes been dismissed for being so straightforward as to be merely announcements of goods for sale.  That approach underestimates the appeals that advertisers worked into their notices in their attempts to entice customers to visit their shops.  Cape addressed both price and politics in his advertisement in 1770, incorporating issues that resonated with consumers at the time.

November 16

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

Nov 16 - 11:16:1769 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (November 16, 1769).

“He will sell at the lowest Advance, and allow ten per Cent. discount for CASH.”

In the late 1760s James Courtonne operated a jewelry shop on Broad Street in Charleston. In an advertisement in the November 16, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, he promoted a variety of his wares, including an “Assortment of Sterling PLATE and JEWELS, of the newest Fashions, most elegantly finished,” “Silver and double gilt Swords,” and “a great Variety of MARCASITE and COQUE-DE-PEARL Ear-Rings.” In addition to selling these imported items, the jeweler also offered several services, noting that the “continues to make and mend Diamond and mourning Rings, and Ear-Rings and Lockets enamelled in the neatest Manner.”

Not surprisingly, Courtonne advanced an appeal to fashion when describing his wares, yet that was not his only means of marketing his jewelry and the array of silver coffeepots, spoons, and spurs available at his shop. He also lowered his prices under circumstances, proclaiming that he would “allow ten per Cent. discount for CASH.” He would allow credit for these purchases, but he saw a definite advantage to dealing in cash. In turn, he sought to make paying in cash attractive to prospective customers as well.

Credit helped fuel the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Merchants and shopkeepers extended credit to consumers while also drawing on transatlantic networks of credit that connected them to merchants, producers, and suppliers in Britain and other places. This system depended on trust and the ability to make savvy decisions. It was risky. Merchants, shopkeepers, and others frequently placed newspaper advertisements calling on customers who made purchases on credit to settle their accounts or face legal action, sometimes in the same advertisements that they marketed their wares to other prospective customers.

Rather than make threats, Courtonne offered an incentive for prospective customers to pay in cash at the time of purchase. Everyone benefitted. Customers paid less. The jeweler received payment in a timely manner. In addition, Courtonne and those clients cultivated relationships with each other that did not have the specter of credit looming over them.