June 13

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

Jun 13 - 6:13:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 13, 1767).

“The assortment being too large for an advertisement, the particulars are omitted.”

Shopkeepers, including Gideon Young of Providence, frequently promoted the “compleat and full assortment of European and India Goods” they imported, stocked, and sold to colonial consumers. Most emphasized consumer choice, enticing potential customers with visions of selecting textiles and housewares that appealed to their own tastes and fit their budgets. A “compleat and full assortment” of merchandise meant that customers experienced significant independence when they went shopping, rather than being expected to accept whatever happened to be on the shelves. Such freedom empowered colonial consumers; advertisers hoped this would encourage them to make more purchases as they explored and considered all the possibilities before determining which goods to buy.

Many advertisers set that process in motion by inserting lengthy lists of their inventory in their commercial notices, prompting potential customers to imagine possessing their merchandise – wearing particular fabrics and adornments or using and displaying specific housewares – even if they had not yet considered visiting any shops. Advertisers sought to stimulate demand by introducing readers to items that they might not have previously even realized that they desired. Eighteenth-century shopkeepers considered enumerating dozens or even hundreds of items in a list-style advertisement one effective way of achieving that goal.

Gideon Young, however, took a different approach as he encouraged potential customers to think about his “compleat and full assortment of European and India Goods.” He did not list any specific items, but instead stated, “The assortment being too large for an advertisement, the particulars are omitted.—Therefore I invite my good old customers and others, to call at my shop.” Such an invitation may have been just as powerful as a list of specific goods. It created a sense of mystery and anticipation by prompting readers to imagine the size of Young’s inventory and the variety of his goods that prevented him from offering a preview in the newspaper. It evoked curiosity and encouraged window shopping that might lead to actual purchases when readers came to investigate the “complete and full assortment” of merchandise on their own.

Young may have been making a virtue of a necessity when he adopted this sort of appeal. While this marketing strategy occupied less space on the page and presumably incurred lower costs, this did not necessarily make it less effective than posting a list-style advertisement. Instead, Young’s description of his merchandise – “the best of its kind, well chosen, and suitable for the season” – was designed to convince potential customers to visit his examine his wares rather than visit shops where the proprietors had not exercised so much care in selecting which goods to stock.

November 23

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

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

Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766).

“A fresh Assortment of European GOODS, (of the last Importation).”

I chose this advertisement because Benoni Pearce talked about having just received imported goods from Europe that he was ready to sell in the shop he “just opened.” All sorts of “European GOODS” were very popular and valuable among the colonists. Pearce understood that the colonists loved European goods and that they bought them because they wanted to copy the styles popular in London and other parts of England. As David Jaffee explains, “These goods –textiles, furniture, and even table forks – made possible the pursuit of an ideal of refinement.” This was a way for colonists to expand their own culture and share a common consumer identity with people back in England. Pearce did not really list what he was selling; he just said “European GOODS,” expecting he would be able to sell them. He also promised that customers would not be disappointed.



Patrick raises an interesting point about some of the assumptions made by eighteenth-century advertisers. Benoni Pearce did not list any specific merchandise that he stocked. Instead, he offered a general description – “a fresh Assortment of European GOODS, (of the last Importation)” – and trusted that this would entice potential customers.

That’s not to say that this advertisement amounted to nothing more than a mere announcement. Pearce did fold several marketing appeals into his brief commercial notice. He sold his wares “on as reasonable Terms as his Neighbours” to customers who wished to “lay out their Money to the best Advantage.” By noting that his goods were “of the last Importation” he assured potential customers that he was not peddling outdated merchandise that had been pawned off on him by English merchants seeking to clear their warehouses of undesirable goods. Instead, he stock consisted of the latest fashions popular in England and elsewhere in Europe.

Pearce’s advertisement appeared in the same column as the one place by Gideon Young that Patrick examined yesterday. Each was the standard “square” common in many eighteenth-century newspapers, but Young made slightly different decisions about how to fill the space he purchased. He included a short list that named some of his wares before indicated that they were part of a “general assortment of GOODS needless to mention.” Here, again, an advertiser trusted that an appeal to choice and variety, rather than an extensive list of merchandise, was sufficient to attract customers.

This strategy – no list or a short list contained in a standard advertising square – differed significantly from another advertisement that appeared in the same issue of the Providence Gazette, the first full-page advertisement printed in an American newspaper. Resorting to three columns, Joseph and William Russell listed hundreds of items that comprised their “large Assortment of English Goods and Braziery Ware.”

Benoni Pearce, Gideon Young, and Joseph and William Russell all sought to harness the power of advertising to encourage consumer demand and direct potential customers to their respective shops. In the process, however, they adopted different strategies in writing copy and making graphic design decisions. At a glance, many advertisements from the late colonial era look standard and interchangeable, but even the squares published by Pearce and Young contained noticeable differences when consumers consulted them carefully.

November 22

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

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

Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766).

“SUPERFINE broad cloths.”

Gideon Young sold imported materials at his shop that people could use to make clothing. He sold some materials that were intended for the rich (“fashionable silks”) as well as some that were not intended for the rich (“midling and coarse broad cloths”). I found it interesting that he sold at low prices so that he could bring in rich or poor people. He wanted to bring as much attention to his shop as possible; the best way was having “cheap” prices for those who lived in Providence.

On the Colonial Williamsburg website, Edward R. Crews talks about the “18th Century love of fashion and the art of making clothes.” People who bought these materials from Young could then bring them to a milliner to make the clothing for them. Some of the colonists who bought from Young might use the materials to make fancy clothing. Young wanted to appeal to the lower class by having lower prices so that they too could make their own clothes that could also look fancy.



Who were Gideon Young’s customers? As Patrick notes, they could have included colonists from a variety of backgrounds. Young stocked some textiles that would have appealed to genteel gentlemen and ladies as well as others more likely to be purchased by the middling and lower sorts. By offering low prices, he invited all sorts of potential customers to visit his shop.

That Young attempted to cater to different kinds of clients demonstrates a tension that emerged as the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century expanded to include greater numbers of colonists. Products and fashions that had once been reserved for the elite increasingly became more widely accessible as the number of imported goods rose and prices fell. Affluent colonists engaged in conspicuous consumption as a means of continuing to distinguish themselves from their social subordinates. However, even as the elite bought more and more things, other colonists purchased what they could afford and engaged in their own acts of displaying their possessions – and their good taste – to others.

Young certainly wanted to make his customers feel special when he offered “fashionable silks” and “best black sattins, pelong, and alamode.” Yet he balanced a sense of exclusivity against “cheap” prices that suggested that not everyone who visited his shop on Union Street came from the upper echelons of Providence residents.

If all sorts of colonists could buy “fashionable” and “best” goods with all the “trimmings to suit” for low prices from shopkeepers like Young, how could the elite assert their status? A rise in concern for manners as well as attention to personal comportment accompanied the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Colonists concentrated on demonstrating their gentility through their actions and interactions with others rather than relying solely on their possessions to testify to their status. In such cases, the clothes did not, by themselves, make the man (or woman). Appearances and possessions were not enough to claim social status. Colonists who wanted to claim a place among the genteel also needed to exhibit politeness and demonstrate that they understood refined rules for social interactions.