August 24

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

Providence Gazette (August 24, 1771).

“Just imported by Joseph and William Russell.”

In the early 1770s, each edition of the Providence Gazette concluded with a colophon in which John Carter, the printer, solicited paid notices.  “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay),” the colophon advised, “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings.”  That fee covered setting type the first time an advertisement ran and the space it occupied in three consecutive issues.  Advertisers could also pay additional fees for their notices to make additional appearances.

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, did not need the invitation in the colophon to prompt them to submit advertisements to Carter’s printing office.  They regularly placed notices promoting a variety of commodities and consumer goods.  Indeed, they advertised so frequently that sometimes they published new advertisements before older ones finished their runs.  That was the case in the August 24, 1771 edition of the Providence Gazette.  That issue featured two advertisements placed by the Russells, a new one on the third page and another that already appeared multiple times on the fourth page.  That made them the only purveyors of goods with more than one advertisement in that issue, not the first time the merchants found themselves in that position.

Did advertising work?  The Russells believed that it did.  Otherwise, they would not have paid to publish advertisement after advertisement in the Providence Gazette.  They also seem to have made some effort to draw attention to their advertisements by varying the formats rather than assuming that prospective customers would read them just because they appeared in the public prints.  Deploying a particularly unusual format, their names, which served as a headline of sorts, appeared halfway through the advertisement on the third page of the August 24 edition.  That distinguished their advertisement from others in the same issue.  In their advertisements on the fourth page, the merchants divided their inventory into two columns instead of a single paragraph of dense text, making it easier for readers to peruse the contents.  The Russells likely thought (or learned from experience) that advertising worked when designed with some creativity and variation.

August 3

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

Providence Gazette (August 3, 1771).

“Just imported … by Joseph and William Russell.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of Providence’s most prominent merchants, made shrewd use of the public prints to keep their names … and their merchandise … before the eyes of prospective customers.  Some merchants and shopkeepers advertised only when they received new shipments of goods, running their notices for three or four weeks.  The Russells, on the other hand, continuously updated their marketing efforts, inserting new advertisements in the Providence Gazette when they discontinued others.

For four weeks in the summer of 1771, they ran an advertisement for “A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods, Ironmongery, Brasiery, Cutlery, Haberdashery, [and] Stationary” that they “Imported from London, in the Ship Providence, and in the Snow Tristram.”  Two weeks after that notice ran for the final time, they inserted a new advertisement, a much lengthier one that listed a variety of textiles, housewares, and other goods in two columns.  The Russells stated that these items were “Just imported from London, in the last ships.”  Savvy readers probably assumed that the Russells did not advertise merchandise that actually just arrived (or else they would have specified which vessels delivered their inventory) but instead goods received many weeks earlier via the Providence and Tristram.

That purveyors of goods sometimes hedged a bit in their advertisements was not any more of a surprise in the eighteenth century than today.  The Russells did not advance any outright misrepresentations as they attempted to garner new attention for their inventory by publishing an advertisement that differed so significantly from the shorter one that previously appeared in the Providence Gazette.  Had they continued inserting the earlier advertisement, they risked readers skipping over content that looked too familiar.  The new notice, lengthier with a different format, allowed them to highlight particular items even as they promoted all of their merchandise more generally.  The Russells invested in repetition, enhancing the visibility and reputation of their business by keeping it in the public prints.

July 20

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

Providence Gazette (July 20, 1771).

“A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, regularly advertised in the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s.  They placed their notices for short periods, sometimes running more than one at a time.  Consider their marketing efforts during the summer of 1771.  On June 29, they inserted an advertisement to inform prospective customers that they now stocked “A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods, Ironmongery, Brasiery, Cutlery, Haberdashery, Stationary,” and other goods imported from London.  That advertisement ran for four consecutive weeks before being discontinued on July 27.  Two weeks after first placing that notice, the Russells placed another advertisement, that one for “THIRTY Barrels of choice Connecticut Pork” as well as corn and textiles.  It also ran for four weeks, appearing in the July 13 and 20 editions of the Providence Gazette with the other advertisement.  On July 27, the Russells published just one advertisement, but on August 3, the last issue for the advertisement about pork, they ran a new advertisement for imported goods.  It also appeared for four weeks.

When it came to advertising, the Russells made deliberate choices.  According to the rates that John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted in the colophon, “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings.”  The Russells did not opt to have their notices run for the minimum amount of time before removing them.  Instead, they added an additional week to allow for greater exposure, but then retired their advertisements and devised new notices.  Doing so allowed them to keep their enterprise visible to prospective customers without risking readers dismissing advertisements that became too familiar.  Did advertising in eighteenth-century newspapers work?  The Russells seemed to believe that advertising was indeed effective, at least when properly managed, or else they would not have placed so many notices in the Providence Gazette and incurred the expenses of doing so.

April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Providence Gazette (April 22, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

The word “Pot-Ash” caught my attention as I was looking at this advertisement, since I had never heard of it. After doing some research, I learned from a journal article by Henry Paynter that potash is a type of potassium carbonate that was made from the ashes of trees and plants during the eighteenth century. Home potash production was encouraged during the American Revolution, since it could be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder. For more day-to-day life, it was used to make goods such as soap and glass, to dye fabrics, and for baking. Potash soap was very popular in England during the middle of the eighteenth century. Similar to South Carolina indigo compared to indigo from French and Spanish colonies, Great Britain imported potash produced in the American colonies rather than Russia because of its cheaper price, sacrificing quality to save money. As the colonial potash industry matured, production shifted north in order to utilize trees more favorable for making potash. Unfortunately, this process led to mass amounts of forests being cleared by the late eighteenth century, and Americans had to find other ways to produce the money-making potash.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Like many other colonial newspapers, the masthead of the Providence Gazette proclaimed that it “Contain[ed] the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” Although the printer, John Carter, and many readers may have considered news items the most significant of those “Advices,” advertisements also kept colonists informed of events and commerce by providing details not necessarily available elsewhere in the newspaper. On occasion, Carter did not have sufficient space to publish all of the “Advices,” whether classified as news or paid notices. The April 22, 1769, edition included a brief note to that effect: “Sundry Articles of Intelligence composed for the Day’s Paper, and a few Advertisements, omitted for Want of Room, shall be in our next.”

Even though some advertisements did not make it into the April 22 issue, Joseph Russell and William Russell were well represented in its pages. News comprised the first two pages, a portion of the third, and most of the fourth. Overall, advertising accounted for slightly less than an entire page. Yet the Russells managed to have two advertisements included among the contents, the notice concerning potash on the final page and another promoting “Barrel Pork,” pepper, indigo, and other commodities on the third page. Both would have been familiar to regular readers of the Providence Gazette, having appeared the previous week and in earlier issues. As a result, these “Advices” may have seemed less pressing than the information in other advertisements or the “Sundry Articles of Intelligence” already composed but omitted until the following week.

Carter may have granted preferential treatment to the Russells precisely because they were such prolific advertisers. They advertised often, sometimes placing multiple advertisements in a single issue. They also tended to insert lengthy advertisements, especially when they listed dozens or hundreds of items they imported and sold at their shop. Carter relied on revenues from advertising to make the Providence Gazette a viable enterprise. In the colophon, every week he called on readers to submit both subscriptions and advertisements to the printing office. Given that the Russells did so regularly advertise in the pages of his newspaper, Carter may have prioritized their advertisements over others when running low on space, even though the “Advices” provided by the Russells had already become familiar in Providence and beyond over the course of several weeks.

February 11

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

feb-11-georgia-gazette-slavery-2
Georgia Gazette (February 11, 1767).

“RUN AWAY … NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA, about 15 years of age.”

This advertisement about a “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGROE GIRL, named MARIA” who ran away from her master would have been very familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated August 5, 1766, it first appeared in the August 6, 1766, issue. It then appeared in almost every issue published for the next six months; the February 11, 1767, issue marked half a year that Donald Mackay inserted this runaway notice in the newspaper published in Savannah.

The longevity of this advertisement may be interpreted in more than one way. It might testify to the value that Mackay placed on Maria or how intensely he chafed for her return. As I noted when I first examined this advertisement last August, the physical description of Maria suggested that Mackay valued the “TALL SLIM LIKELY YOUNG NEGRO GIRL” for more than just her capacity to labor in the household or the fields. The expenses incurred by placing an advertisement for her return almost every week for six months (plus an award and reimbursement for “al reasonable charges” associated with Maria’s capture and transport) indicated that Mackay was willing to make a significant investment in reclaiming his human property. Maria’s potential resale value possibly more than justified such expenses.

That line of reasoning, however, assumes that Mackay instructed James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, to insert this advertisement each week and that he agreed to pay for each appearance. Like other newspapers published in smaller cities, such as the Providence Gazette, the [Portsmouth] New-Hampshire Gazette, and the [Hartford] Connecticut Courant, the Georgia Gazette featured significantly fewer advertisements than newspapers in the major urban ports. That the advertisement for the runaway Maria consistently appeared for six months may have been a function of the printer seeking to fill the pages with any sort of content, especially considering how many other advertisements in the Georgia Gazette ran for extended periods, often much longer than similar notices in newspapers published elsewhere.

Perhaps the real story combines elements of these two possibilities. Maybe Donald Mackay was so eager to have Maria returned and James Johnston was so eager to fill the columns in his newspaper that they worked out a payment schedule that included discounted rates. Whatever the circumstances, the frequency that this and other advertisements appeared in the Georgia Gazette raises suspicions that not all notices were indeed paid notices.