What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Lately imported … before the Resolution of the Merchants for Non-Importation took Place.”
Erasmus Williams’s advertisement for “A large Assortment of all kind of Linnen Drapery” looked much the same as so many other advertisements placed in the Boston Weekly News-Letter and other newspapers by merchants and shopkeepers seeking to sell a variety of imported textiles. Nearly half of the advertisement consisted of a lost of the fabrics included among Williams’s merchandise at the Sign of the Blue Glove, from “Cambricks” to “printed Linens” to “flower’d & plain Lawns.”
Yet Williams included a curious preamble with his advertisement: “Lately imported from London, but last from New-York, and before the Resolution of the Merchants for Non-Importation took Place.” Like others who promoted their wares in the public prints, Williams noted the origins of his textiles. Usually asserting a connection to London worked to the advantage of advertisers, but that was not necessarily the case in 1769. In defiance of the taxes levied on paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea by the Townshend Acts, “Merchants & Traders in the town of BOSTON” and other places participated in boycotts of most English goods. A week before Williams’s advertisement ran in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Richard Draper inserted an overview of such agreements in the Massachusetts Gazette. Draper reprinted the original resolutions adopted by merchants the previous August. In addition, he published a report that assessed to what extent those merchants had abided by the agreement not to import “any Kind of Goods or Merchandize from Great Britain.” This report found that only six out of 211 signers had imported such goods, but acknowledged that they had done so “through Inattention” and did not “countermand their Orders.” All six “readily and of their own Motion” agreed to surrender their goods to the committee of merchants overseeing the boycott. For the most part, even those “Merchants & Traders” who had not signed the agreement had adhered to it anyway. Only six or seven people continued to import goods from Great Britain “as usual.” Of equal concern, “It likewise appeared that a Quantity of Goods had been imported from New-York” since the nonimportation agreement went into effect, a strategy that might have allowed local merchants to sidestep the boycott. That being the case, those merchants who did abide by the terms of boycott determined that “the Articles of their Agreement should be printed in the Public Papers” as a reminder to merchants, shopkeepers, and consumers alike.
Two weeks before that report appeared in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, Williams commenced publishing his advertisement, complete with the preamble that declared he had imported his merchandise “before the Resolution of the Merchants for Non-Importation took Place.” As a committee of merchants went about assessing compliance to the boycott, he proclaimed that he had not violated the agreement. Furthermore, his preamble advised prospective customers that they could still acquire English goods they wanted at his shop without defying the boycott, on a technicality. Politics need not infringe too much on his business or his customers’ desires.