March 24

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 24 - 3:24:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (March 24, 1767).

“SUNDRY houshold goods, plate, several dozen bottles of old arrack.”

Even though eighteenth-century America was built on drinks – the social and often political drink of tea and the economic production of rum – some colonists also enjoyed more expensive choices of drinks. The commodity that drew me to this advertisement was the “several dozen bottles of old arrack.” From the context, I gathered that it was some form of drink, most likely alcoholic. According to Chuck Hudson’s explanations of “Beverages in the Georgian Era,” Arrack is a form of alcohol from Indonesia which was distilled from sugarcane. It was first popular in London, and through Anglicization, it became popular in the colonies. This was the type of drink one would get if one “could afford better than the basic.” Since England wanted to control trade with the colonies, the Arrack was “shipped from the East Indies to England before it could be trans-shipped to America.” This also made it quite expensive.

This brings me back to the advertisement itself. The previous owner, the late Robert Hume, must have been a wealthy man with what was being sold. He had several bottles of Arrack, which was a feat in it of itself. This was also shown with how much land Mr. Hume seemed to own.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who promoted new goods placed most advertisements for consumer goods featured on the Adverts 250 Project, yet early Americans acquired goods a variety of ways. In addition to imported items recently arrived on ships from London and other ports in the British Atlantic world, secondhand goods circulated widely in eighteenth-century America. Colonists willingly sold or passed on some of their possessions for a variety of reasons, but other goods reentered the marketplace via theft or estate sales.

In addition to “several dozen bottles of old arrack,” the executors of Robert Hume’s estate also advertised “SUNDRY houshold goods,” likely a more affordable option for some colonists than purchasing new wares from South Carolina’s merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans. Another advertisement in the same issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal announced an auction for “SOME HOUSHOLD FURNITURE, WEARING APPAREL, and sundry other Articles, lately belonging to a Person deceased.” Surely readers could find some bargains there as well!

Elsewhere in the same issue, Alexander Caddell announced that he had “STOPT from a Negro who offered them for sale, a pair of very good Buck-skin Breeches, almost new.” Caddell indicated that he ran a “breeches-maker’s shop in Broad-street.” Presumably the “Negro” approached Caddell with an opportunity to supplement his inventory, hoping that the breechesmaker would not much care about the origins of the breeches. Advertisements for runaway slaves and indentured servants often listed clothing they had taken with them, which could be used for disguises or sold or exchanged. On a fairly regular basis, shopkeepers placed notices indicating that thieves had stolen multiple items, not just a single article of clothing. Black and white colonists frequently colluded in what Serena Zabin has called the “informal economy” of stolen and secondhand goods.

John Davies advertised an assortment of textiles and other wares “Imported in the Minerva, from London” in the March 24 issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. He informed potential customers of his inventory not only because he competed with other merchants and shopkeepers but also because colonists acquired some of their possessions through the market for secondhand goods.

July 20

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Jul 20 - 7:18:1766 Rind's Virginia Gazette
Rind’s Virginia Gazette (July 18, 1766).

“ALL the PERSONAL ESTATE of the said Dr. Alexander Jameson.”

Today’s advertisement, a notice for an estate sale, features two focal points, the “A” in “ALL” set inside a decorative border near the beginning of the notice and the word “NEGROES” in capital letters and larger type dividing the notice in half. Arguably, “NEGROES” is the primary focal point.

I’ve previously argued that, generally, advertisers wrote their own copy but printers assumed responsibility for design and format. In examining some advertisements, especially when comparing them to the “standard” format established in others printed throughout an issue or multiple issues of the same newspaper, it’s possible to discern examples in which advertisers likely made special requests or gave specific instructions concerning design and visual aspects. It seems likely that this was such an advertisement. While it may have been standard for the printer to capitalize general categories of commodities to be sold at estate sales (“HOUSEHOLD and KITCHEN FURNITURE, HORSES, CATTLE, MEDICINES, … INSTRUMENTS, … BOOKS”), it appears to have been a calculated decision to make the word “NEGROES” into a single line of text with type significantly larger than any found elsewhere in the advertisement. Thomas Yuille, the executor of the Dr. Alexander Jameson’s estate, likely provided some direction on this count.

Why? Why emphasize “NEGROES” over any of the other commodities that comprised the estate? Possibly their collective value amounted to the most significant assets within the estate. Given the real estate, property, and personal items listed in the notice, Jameson appears to have been fairly affluent, with perhaps the bulk of his personal finances tied up in the bodies of the slaves he owned.

On several occasions I have commented on the stories only partially revealed in eighteenth-century advertisements. Here, again, we see only part of a story, but we can imagine others. This was certainly a time of mourning for the family and friends of Dr.. Alexander Jameson, but it was also a time of mourning for the slaves he possessed. Their futures were uncertain. They stood to be separated and sold away from spouses, children, and parents. The death of Jameson marked a time of transition for his family, neighbors, and others in the community, but his slaves were likely to be among the most significantly affected.

April 20

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 20 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766)

“The Trustees of the Estate of John Butler.”

Today’s advertisement regards a legal notice alerting all colonists that John Butler died and his account was being settled. Colonial Americans struggled to settle estate cases, especially involving those that did not have a prewritten will. In an article discussing “English Law in American Land Research,” Sandra Hargreaves Luebking says, “The colonies lacked the judges, lawyers, law schools, and elaborate court system to implement English property law in all its complexity, but most of the basic concepts crossed the Atlantic and exist in the land records genealogists use.” The system brought to the colonies from Great Britain was very complicated and the average colonist lacked the knowledge to understand.

The advertisement began with a dated notice – April 16, 1766 – that asked “Creditors of said Butler, to meet at the British Coffee-House in Boston, … then and there to transact such Matters and Things relating to said Debtor’s Estate as may be thought necessary.” In the following paragraph it requests that all indebted to John Butler pay the same to Daniel Leonard, an attorney at law, who was handling the estate. It then goes onto threaten that those “who neglect making Payment, may depend on being sued to July Court, without further Notice.” This was something that I found unique to colonial advertisements and almost nonexistent in modern advertisements.

I was curious about how Butler and other debtors paid the money they owed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, in colonial America coins were the original primary form of currency, although they were not always in circulation. The first use of paper money was in “bills of credit.” These notes were redeemable in coin. One problem with these bills was that they led many colonists into debt that would be hard to repay. A project by Louis Jordan of Notre Dame states, “In 1749 the British government sent Massachusetts Bay Colony two tons of Spanish silver coins and ten tons of British coppers (primarily 1749 dated halfpence) as reimburse for assistance they provided to the Lewisburg expedition on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during the French and Indian War.” This shows that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was given a chance to start using silver as their main currency again. Furthermore, according to, Alvin Rabushka’s book, Taxation in Colonial America, “Under the 1749 Massachusetts Currency Reform, all debts and contracts from March 31, 1750, onward would be payable only in silver coin, and any court judgments brought for the recovery of debts would be converted into silver coin at the specified exchange rate for the different tenors.”

This leads me to believe that because Butler owned and ran his own shop with multiple forms of currencies with different exchange rates coming and going it would be easy to fall into debt and then struggle to escape it with the new act requiring only silver currency. The problem did not get any better once the colonies declared independence. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, during the Revolutionary War, the new nation issued too much money, causing inflation and by the end of the war the paper money was almost worthless. In the time leading up to the war the fluctuating value of money could explain why John Butler was in such debt. Furthermore, it would explain why he was not only in deb himself, but had customers who were in debt to him and expected to repay what they owe after his death.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Estate and probate notices were a common type of advertisement that appeared in colonial newspapers, often (depending on the newspaper) as frequently as advertisements for consumer goods and services. This sort of notice, complete with its stern language threatening further legal action, may seem unfamiliar to Trevor and other modern readers, but such notices were largely unremarkable alongside other advertisements in the colonial era.

Trevor has identified some of the reasons why it was easy for colonists to fall into debt. Certainly the lack of hard currency played a significant role. It also led to networks of credit: within cities and villages, throughout the colonies, and across the Atlantic. The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century occurred, in part, because merchants extended credit to retailers and, in turn, retailers extended credit to consumers. Appeals to price became a standard part of eighteenth-century advertisements, but they were often accompanied by specifications that retailers offered credit to tempt potential customers into making purchases (or sometimes explicitly stated that low prices could be had in exchange for cash, perhaps to avoid some of the problems raised in today’s advertisement).

The Economic History Association offers an overview of “Credit in the Colonial American Economy.”