June 26

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (June 24, 1771).

“To particularize every Article would near fill up the whole Paper.”

To demonstrate the extent of choices available to consumers, advertisers often included lengthy lists of merchandise in their newspaper notices.  Joshua Gardner did so in an advertisement in the June 24, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In a paragraph of dense text, he named dozens of items, including “Queens black silk mitts, Queens white silk mitts, black, white and cloth coloured silk mitts and gloves close wove, [and] worsted gloves and mitts.”  He stocked a similar variety of stockings, ribbons, textiles, and other “English Goods.”  Henry Leddle deployed the same strategy, cataloging an even more extensive inventory in an advertisement divided into two columns.

Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, took a different approach.  He identified a few items from among his “ELEGANT Assortment of English, India and other Piece Goods suitable for all Seasons.”  He also carried housewares, cutlery, and hardware, but did not elaborate on which items.  Instead, he declared that “To particularize every Article would near fill up the whole Paper, and be very Tedious to the Public, therefore it may suffice that he has almost every Article that can be asked for.”  Prospective customers likely did not consider it hyperbole to suggest that a complete accounting of Deblois’s wares would indeed fill all four pages of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  After all, they regularly encountered advertisements that extended more than a column and still grouped similar items together as “an assortment” or “a variety” without enumerating each separately.  Asking readers to imagine an entire issue of the newspaper devoted to nothing but a list of Deblois’s merchandise prompted them to consider just how many items he carried at his shop.  By comparison, the lists in the advertisements placed by Gardner, Leddle, and others seemed short.  Deblois aimed for some of the benefits of such a lengthy advertisement without the expense.  At the same time, he hedged his bets, stating that he had “almost every Article.”  Once prospective customers visited his shop, he could suggest alternatives to anything he did not have in stock.

Many eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers competed with each other when it came to the length of their newspaper notices.  Longer notices listed more goods, demonstrating choices available to consumers.  On occasion, some advertisers offered commentary on that method, seeking to distinguish themselves by simultaneously critiquing that marketing strategy while also maintaining that they provided the same array of choices for customers.  Deblois spared readers a “very tedious” list, but still promised as many choices as his competitors.

January 25

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

Jan 25 - 1:25:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (January 25, 1768).

“It is his Design to keep a full Assortment of the above Goods for his Customers untill they can be supplied on better Terms from our own manufacturing Towns.”

In January 1768 Gilbert Deblois stocked “A large Assortment of English and India GOODS” that had been “Imported in the last Ships from London & Bristol.” Even though his merchandise included “the most fashionable colour’d Broad Cloths,” “genteel figur’d Sattins,” and “newest fashion Ribbons,” an appeal emphasizing current tastes likely fell short with many local consumers. Even though his inventory included the “best Hair Plushes” and “best Manchester Checks,” an appeal to quality also likely failed to impress many local consumers. Even though he stocked an extensive array of goods, from “a large Collection of new fashion Stuffs” to “Baize of all widths and colors” to “a neat Assortment of plain and figur’d Silks,” an appeal to choice perhaps did not resonate with many local consumers.

Deblois deployed several of the most popular marketing strategies of the eighteenth century, but he was also savvy enough to realize that he needed to address the origins of the goods he attempted to sell to the residents of Boston and its hinterlands. He carried imported goods at the same time that colonists in Massachusetts and elsewhere had instituted non-importation agreements in response to both a continuing trade imbalance that benefited Britain and the imposition of new taxes on certain imported goods when the Townshend Act went into effect in late November 1767. In response, colonists resolved to encourage domestic production at every opportunity and purchase goods produced in North America whenever possible. Even if Deblois acquired his inventory prior to the non-importation pact going into effect at the beginning of the new year, his efforts to sell imported goods still violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement. Deblois, a Loyalist who eventually evacuated Boston with the British in March 1776, attempted to chart a careful course in selling his goods in 1768. He sought to avoid alienating potential customers of any political leanings.

To that end, he offered reassurances to prospective customers, claiming that “it is his Design to keep a full Assortment of the above Goods for his Customers untill they can be supplied on better Terms from our own manufacturing Towns.” Deblois suggested that he wanted to support the boycotts as much as possible, but he also took a pragmatic approach. The colonies, he argued, were not quite ready to supply themselves with the array of goods they had grown accustomed to importing from London, Bristol, and other British cities. Until domestic manufactures could keep up with local demand, he provided an important service, but he also implied that he would stock merchandise “from our own manufacturing Towns” when it became available. In addition to absolving Deblois of deviating from the non-importation agreement, this strategy also gave potential customers permission to rationalize their decisions to continue acquiring imported goods from his shop. After all, they were all in it together, at least as much as they could be.

Did most consumers find this marketing strategy appealing or convincing? Whether they did or not, Deblois considered it necessary given the political implications of participating in commerce and consumer culture in January 1768. Despite his own political views, he catered as much as he could to prevailing sentiments in his efforts to move his merchandise.

June 27

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

Jun 27 - 6:27:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 27, 1767).

“GOODS, consisting of every article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy advertisements, and many others, not usually imported.”

James Green sold a variety of imported goods at his shop in Providence. For several weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1767 he placed a notice that “he hath just received a large, compleat and fashionable assortment of English and India piece GOODS, consisting of every article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy advertisements, and many others, not usually imported.” This claim caught my attention because it so closely replicated an advertisement placed by Gilbert Deblois in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette at about the same time. Deblois carried “A complete fashionable Assortment of English & India Piece GOODS, consisting of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements, and many others not usually imported.” Green eliminated the italics that consistently appeared in Deblois’s advertisements in all three Boston newspapers, but he otherwise adopted the same language to make a fairly unique appeal.

Many eighteenth-century advertisements included formulaic phrases, such as “compleat and fashionable assortment,” but appropriation of entire sentences that expressed distinctive marketing efforts was not common. Shopkeepers occasionally stated that they carried too much merchandise to list all of it in an advertisement, but rarely did they claim to carry goods “not usually imported.” Green, whose advertisement first appeared in the Providence Gazette on May 23, apparently lifted copy from Deblois’s notice, probably hoping that it would have the same effect of intriguing potential customers and inciting curiosity about what might be on the shelves in his shop. He may have believed that he could get away with treating this marketing strategy as his own if he was the first and only shopkeeper in Providence to adopt it.

Other scholars have demonstrated that news flowed through networks of printers who liberally borrowed news items from other newspapers, reprinting them word for word, sometimes with attribution and other times without. This advertisement suggests that sometimes advertisers engaged in the same practices, keeping their eyes open for innovative marketing appeals formulated by their counterparts in other cities and adopting them as their own.

May 4

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

May 4 - 5:4:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (May 4, 1767).

“GOODS, consisting of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements.”

Gilbert Deblois frequently advertised in Boston’s newspapers, sometimes at great length. On May 4, 1767, he inserted the same advertisement in both the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston Post-Boy. Several days earlier the same notice appeared in the extraordinary that accompanied the current issue of the Massachusetts Gazette. Compared to some of his other marketing efforts in the public prints, this notice was considerably shorter. Still, extending over almost one-third of a column, it occupied significantly more space – about three times as much – compared to advertisements placed by some of his competitors.

Deblois seemed less concerned about those advertisements than the much lengthier list advertisements placed by other competitors, including John Appleton and John Barrett and Sons (two-thirds of a column), Clement Jackson and John Gore, Jr. (three-quarters of a column), and Frederick William Geyer (an entire column and one-fifth of another). Those advertisements listed scores of items stocked by local shopkeepers.

Deblois devised a way to make those lengthy list advertisements (paid for by his competitors) work to his own advantage. After inserting the standard language about “A complete fashionable Assortment of English & India Piece GOODS,” he proclaimed that he carried “every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements and many others not usually imported.” (The italics appeared in the advertisements in all three newspapers that carried this advertisement, indicating that Deblois gave specific instructions to the printers rather than leaving it to their discretion to make decisions about that particular aspect of formatting the notice. On the other hand, the three advertisements had other variations in format, but not copy.)

Considering the variety of consumer goods imported and advertised by Boston’s merchants and shopkeepers, readers probably greeted this pronouncement with some skepticism. As a frequent advertiser who sometimes placed lengthy list notices, however, Deblois may have previously amassed some credibility. He did not need to enumerate all of his wares in every advertisement. Invoking his competitors’ advertisements provided a means of listing his merchandise without actually listing it – or paying to do so. This also initiated a challenge to potential customers to visit his shop and assess for themselves the validity of his claim, generating foot traffic that could result in additional sales.

January 12

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

Boston Evening-Post (January 12, 1767).

“The above GOODS will be sold as low as if the Prices were affix’d to each Article.”

Eighteenth-century advertisers rarely indicated specific prices for their merchandise, though they frequently proclaimed that they charged “reasonable rates” or offered discounts for purchasing by volume. Shopkeeper Gilbert Deblois stated that he sold the “large Assortment” of goods he stocked “Very Cheap for ready Money.” He made this promise in what might be considered the header of his advertisement that appeared before an extensive list detailing his inventory. Advertisements placed by retailers commonly featured some sort of header that included the advertiser’s name and location, announced that their wares had been recently imported, and made general appeals to price, quality, and fashion.

Deblois augmented his standard assurance that customers could expect “Very Cheap” prices with a note that explained why he did not specify any particular prices. “The above goods,” he asserted, “will be sold as low as if the Prices were affix’d to each Article.” He further explained, just in case potential customers were not already aware or needed to be reminded, that “it’s well known the fixing Prices to Goods in an Advertisement does by no Means denote the cheapness of them, as they differ so much in Quality.” Consumers would not find it useful, the shopkeeper argued, to review the prices in an advertisement before visiting his shop. They needed to examine the merchandise to assess its quality for themselves in order to determine that any price was indeed “Very Cheap.”

This clarification may help to explain why so few advertisers announced specific low prices as a means of attracting potential customers, a significant difference between eighteenth-century methods and modern marketing practices that often rely on advertising particular prices. In an era before major manufacturers mass produced products that carried brand names associated with well known reputations, both retailers and, especially, consumers may have considered listing specific prices in advertisements meaningless, ineffective, and potentially misleading.