What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Too many to enumerate in the Compass of an Advertisement.”
Edward Thurber stocked a variety of commodities at his store in Providence. In an advertisement in the June 29, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette, he listed several grocery items, including “Loaf and brown Sugar,” “Choice Cyder Vinegar,” “Coffee and Chocolate,” “Figs and Raisins,” and “Flour, Rice.” He did not attempt, however, to provide even an abbreviated list of the “Good Assortment of HARD WARE and PIECE GOODS” he recently imported from London. Instead, he proclaimed that they were “too many to enumerate in the Compass of an Advertisement.” Such a statement challenged readers accustomed to encountering extensive lists of merchandise to imagine the range of choices the merchant offered. Thurber was no stranger to publishing advertisements that cataloged his wares in detail; like many other colonial merchants and shopkeepers, he deployed lengthy lists as a marketing strategy to attract attention and demonstrate the options he made available to consumers. In this instance, he experimented with another means of communicating choice without taking up as much space (and incurring as much expense) in the newspaper.
In the same issue of the Providence Gazette, other advertisers promised choices to prospective customers. Joseph and William Russell, for instance, promoted their “VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods, Ironmongery, Brasiery, Cutlery, Haberdashery, [and] Stationary.” They adopted their own less-is-more marketing strategy by listing categories of goods but not any particular items, except for a “great Assortment of Irish Linens, Lawns and Cambricks” in a nota bene. Lovett and Greene advertised a “NEAT Assortment of English, East and West-India GOODS,” but did not insert further commentary about the range of choices. Similarly, Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses Brown hawked a “fine Assortment of Hard Ware and other GOODS,” but did not list which items prospective customers could expect to find in their store. Among the wholesalers and retailers who published notices in that edition of the Providence Gazette, Thurber alone commented on the absence of any sort of catalog of his merchandise, increasing the likelihood that readers would envision a lengthy advertisement and credit him with providing many choices even though they did not see those choices visibly represented on the page. A clever turn of phrase distinguished Thurber’s advertisement from the several others that ran alongside it.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Choice Cyder Vinegar.”
As summer approached in 1771, the number of advertisements in the Providence Gazette increased, due in part to the arrival of ships from England delivering imported goods to merchants and shopkeepers after winter ended. Advertising accounted for nearly half of the content in the June 8, 1771, edition, many of the paid notices seeking to entice consumers to purchase textiles, garments, housewares, and hardware.
Many of those advertisements followed a similar format. Headlines consisted of the names of the advertisers while the body of the notices provided lists of goods, alerting prospective customers to the many choices available, in dense paragraphs of text. In terms of graphic design, those advertisements resembled other paid notices, including advertisements about runaway indentured servants, legal notices, estate notices, and even advertisements about strayed or stolen horses. Some advertisements did not much different than news accounts. Determining the purpose of an advertisement and navigating its contents required careful reading.
Some purveyors of consumer goods adopted a different strategy when enumerating their merchandise. Instead of a single paragraph, Edward Thurber used two columns with only one item on most lines. This introduced a greater amount of white space into the advertisement while simultaneously making it easier to skim the notice and determine whether it included specific items of interest. This format increased the amount of space an advertisement filled, which meant that advertisers paid more for it. Thurber may have considered it well worth the investment if the graphic design distinguished his notice from the many others placed by his competitors.
Only one other advertisement in the June 8 edition featured merchandise listed in columns. Amos Throop, an apothecary, used columns for listing the various patent medicines available at his shop. He then reverted to the standard paragraph format for listing other items, producing a hybrid format for describing his inventory. Both Thurber and Throop competed with other advertisers who sold the same goods, as well as many others who did not resort to the public prints to hawk their wares. Thurber and Throop made appeals to consumer choice, customer service, and low prices, but they did not depend on advertising copy alone in reaching out to prospective customers. Graphic design likely also helped them to capture and keep the attention of consumers perusing the Providence Gazette.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Sign of the Brazen Lion.”
Its length alone would have made Edward Thurber’s advertisement in the February 27, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette difficult to miss. Listing dozens of items he offered for sale, it extended for nearly an entire column. Yet Thurber did not rely solely on the amount of space the advertisement occupied to attract the attention of potential customers. He incorporated a bit of visual flair by inserting a woodcut.
For quite some time he had been advertising in the Providence Gazette, but usually in conjunction with Benjamin Thurber. Their shared notices informed readers that they operated separate shops even though they worked together to acquire merchandise. Benjamin could be found at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes and Edward at the Sign of the Brazen Lion. They did not insert any images in their joint advertisements, but when Edward commenced advertising on his own he commissioned a woodcut that depicted his Sign of the Brazen Lion. Perhaps he had more creative freedom on his own. Maybe Benjamin had not wished to invest in a corresponding woodcut of the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes. Maybe the partners thought that two woodcuts in a single advertisement would have appeared too crowded or too confusing. Maybe they mutually determined that when they bought space in the local newspaper that they wanted to fill it with copy rather than woodcuts. Whatever their reasons, the Thurbers did not experiment with visual images in their joint advertisements. That changed when Edward advertised separately.
Although it did inject a visual element into his advertisement, Edward’s woodcut was rather primitive compared to some that accompanied advertisements in newspapers published in larger cities, especially New York and Philadelphia. His woodcut quite literally depicted a signpost with a crudely carved lion suspended from it. While not the most impressive woodcut, it does testify to a sight that colonists would have glimpsed as they traversed the streets of Providence. Apparently Edward Thurber’s sign was not a board painted with the image of a lion but rather a piece of wood carved into either a two- or three-dimensional lion. In and of itself, such a sign would have been a significant investment, but well worth the price as it became a brand consistently used on the exterior of the shop and in newspaper advertisements. Edward Thurber further advanced his use of this brand in his advertising by including a woodcut that visually reiterated the copy that directed potential customers to “the Sign of the Brazen Lion.”
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A LARGE and general Assortment of English and India Goods.”
Today’s advertisement was more of an invitation for customers to peruse the goods being sold at “Benjamin & Edward Thurber’s Shops” as opposed to advertising the actual goods themselves. The advertisement offered a wide variety of imported goods from England, India, and the West Indies, all of which were being sold at low prices and could be purchased cheaply. Note that the advertisement offered goods from India which—while becoming a part of Colonial British rule—was on the other side of the world than the American colonies. Through further research I learned that the American colonists had a more significant economic relation to India than I had previously known.
Jonathan Eacott recently published a book about trade within the British Empire, specifically analyzing how India played a role in the economic development of both Britain and America. According to Thomas R. Metcalf’s review of the book, Eacott indicates that the British initially sought to use India to supply the American colonies with goods, such as spices and textiles, which the Americans might then cultivate themselves. However, due to regional differences this endeavor failed. The English began to enjoy India goods themselves, while also exporting Indian goods to the colonies through the East India Company. When India textiles caused problems for the English at home they banned the importation of the goods in Britain, although the East India Company continued to monopolize the sale of Indian goods in the American colonies.
Americans began to associate the Indian goods with the East India Company, its influence in India, and the tyrannical British control over colonies. This did not, however, halt the importation of Indian luxury goods, which increased after the Revolution.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Sam makes an important observation in noting that this advertisement served as an invitation for prospective customers to visit the Thurbers’ shops and explore the merchandise on their own rather than listing any particular items for sale. Their notice could be divided into two parts, the first of which could run without the second and not look out of the ordinary. The first portion announced they had “JUST IMPORTED” a variety of goods and made some of the most common appeals – quality, choice, price. Indeed, price seemed particularly important to the Thurbers. They opened by stating that they sold their ware “Cheap” and concluded the first part of the advertisement by pronouncing that they offered “the very lowest Prices.”
The Thurbers then devoted the second (and lengthier) section to convincing potential customers that they did indeed sell their merchandise at low prices. Most eighteenth-century advertisers who made appeals to price quite simply inserted phrases about “reasonable rates” or “low prices.” Some elaborated by devoting a sentence or two to their prices. In presenting an entire paragraph to the cost of the goods they sold, however, the Thurbers provided an extraordinarily extensive discussion of their low prices.
They began by noting that they obtained their inventory “much cheaper” than at any time in the past, which in turn allowed them to sell their imported goods “lower than they ever yet sold.” They then made a old pronouncement that compared their prices to others in Providence and throughout the colonies: their prices, the Thurbers “dare presume to say,” were “as low as any Person in this or the neighbouring Towns, or in North-America.”
To underscore their ability to offer low prices, the Thurbers explained that they did not provide the list of goods so common in other eighteenth-century advertisements because they had they made only a “very moderate Profit” and to “enumerate each Particular in an Advertisement” would cancel their small gains as retailers. Joshua Blanchard, a shopkeeper in Boston, made a similar argument in the Massachusetts Gazette two months earlier, though he did not go into such extensive detail. The Thurbers’ objection to lengthy list advertisements raises additional questions about the oversized advertisements they previously published in the Providence Gazette, once again raising suspicions that the printer inserted such advertisements when lacking other content rather than advertisers themselves clamoring to pursue such an innovation.
The Thurbers concluded their advertisement by further extending invitations to potential customers to visit their shops. They even shifted away from the usual use of rather impersonal address, such as “the Public in general, and their former good Customers in particular,” to directly invite readers: “come and look for yourselves,” “you will be kindly and thankfully received,” and “they again invite you to come and trade with them,” and “whatever you want you will not be disappointed.” Low prices did not have to result in impersonal transactions.
 Thomas R. Metcalf, review of Jonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 47, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 579-580.
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AT BENJAMIN and EDWARD THURBER’s Shops, at the Signs of the Bunch of Grapes and Lyon.”
On August 9, 1766, Thompson and Arnold placed an exceptional advertisement in the Providence Gazette, an advertisement guaranteed to attract attention thanks to its innovative graphic design. Unlike the standard advertisement that appeared elsewhere in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers throughout the colonies, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement extended across two columns, sequestered from other content on the page by a decorative border comprised of printer’s ornaments. Within the advertisement, the extensive list of merchandise was set in three columns, further disrupting the lines formed by the other columns on that page and the rest of the issue. Furthermore, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement was so large that it dominated the page. At a glance, it seemed more like a trade card or handbill, meant to be distributed separately, yet superimposed on the newspaper page.
Thompson and Arnold’s striking advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette in subsequent issues, moving to different corners of the page depending on the needs of the printer, but always the focal point no matter the quadrant where it appeared. Then something even more interesting happened just five weeks later. The Providence Gazette featured another advertisement, this one the shops operated by Benjamin and Edward Thurber, that imitated the graphic design of Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement. It was oversized. It spread across two columns. It included a decorative border made of printing ornaments. It further disrupted the lines on the page by dividing the merchandise into three columns. It could have been distributed separately as a handbill or trade card.
Benjamin and Edward Thurber’s advertisement appeared on the third page of the September 13, 1766, issue of the Providence Gazette. Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement continued to appear on the fourth page. What might Thompson and Arnold have thought of their competitors aping their unique graphic design? Advertisers seemed to be paying attention to the commercial notices placed by others and updating their own marketing in response to what they saw and what they anticipated would be effective.