May 2

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

Postscript to the Censor (May 2, 1772).

“Just Arrived, The Cream of Goods.”

Gilbert DeBlois placed his advertisement for “The Cream of Goods” imported from England in several newspapers published in Boston in the spring of 1772, including the Censor.  Ezekiel Russell commenced publication of the Censor, more “a political magazine rather than a newspaper,” in November 1771.[1]  He eventually supplemented it with a half sheet Postscript that looked more like a newspaper.  Instead of carrying essays and editorials exclusively, it also featured news and advertising.  Those efforts to diversify the publication, however, did not broaden its appeal to readers in Boston.  As Isaiah Thomas, the ardent patriot who published the Massachusetts Spy and wrote The History of Printing in America (1810), noted, “the circulation of the paper was confined to a few of their own party,” Tories who sympathized with the British government.[2]  Given his politics, DeBlois numbered among that party.  He eventually left Boston as part of the British evacuation in 1776.  He was among the advertisers in the final issue of the Censordistributed by Russell.

Thomas made his contempt for the Censor clear, demeaning it for being “discontinued before the revolution of a year from its first publication.”  In a footnote, Thomas also provided details about a notorious contributor to the Censor.  “Dr. Benjamin Church, a reputed whig, who when the Revolutionary war commenced was appointed surgeon general of the American army, but was soon after arrested and confined, being detected in a traitorous correspondence with the British army in Boston, I have been informed by a very respectable person whom I have long known, was a writer for the Censor.”  Thomas did not reveal his source, but he did state that “[t]his person, then an apprentice to Russell, was employed to convey, in a secret manner, the doctor’s manuscripts to the press, and proof sheets from the press to the doctor.”  Thomas asserted that Church engaged in skullduggery long before his infamous letter to General Thomas Gage was intercepted and decoded in October 1775.  Some historians have suggested that Church’s case was more nuanced than Thomas allowed, as did Church at the time.  Thomas apparently had little use for Church’s rationalizations that he deliberately sent misinformation to the British to ward off attacks against patriots who lacked ammunition, just as he had little use for the Censor.  For a few months, the Postscript to the Censor increased the number of publications that disseminated advertising in Boston, but Russell did not attract enough subscribers or advertisers to continue producing the weekly political magazine and its supplement.

**********

[1] Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society, 1947), 275.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 285.

April 25

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

Postscript to the Censor (April 25, 1772).

“The Cream of Goods … at his Cheap Shop.”

Customers could expect only the best merchandise when they visited the “Cheap Shop” operated by Gilbert Deblois.  In an advertisement in the April 25, 1772, edition of the Postscript to the Censor, Deblois trumpeted that he carried “The Cream of Goods” selected by “the most able merchants in the city of LONDON,” purchased at “the different manufactories in England,” and imported to Boston.  His inventory included “a great variety” of “English, Scots, Irish, Dutch & India Goods.”

In describing his business as a “Cheap Shop,” Deblois did not mean that he sold inferior goods.  Instead, both buyers and sellers understood “cheap” to mean inexpensive or a good value for the money.  They did not associate “cheap” with poor quality.  As a result, prospective customers did not notice any contradiction in Deblois’s claim that he sold “The Cream of Goods … at his Cheap Shop.”

The merchant set such good prices for his merchandise, both wholesale and retail, that he refused to haggle with his customers.  He declared his determination “to sell very cheap,” but also asserted that he “makes no abatement on the prices first asked.”  He expected buyers to be satisfied that they acquired the best possible bargains for “The Cream of Goods” without having to negotiate for further discounts.  To that end, he informed readers that his customers “may depend no shop in town shall under sell him.”

Deblois was so confident in this claim that he circulated it widely, placing the same advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.  Doing so significantly expanded the distribution of his advertisement, especially since the Censor was struggling to attract subscribers and would cease publication less than a month after Deblois submitted his notice to multiple printing offices.  A Tory who eventually evacuated Boston with the British in 1776, Deblois may have appreciated the political stance represented in the Censor, but as a man of business he chose to advertise in newspapers that did not share his perspective.

October 6

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 3, 1771).

“Fifes, Violins, Powder, / Lead, Shott, / Steel, &c.”

Gilbert Deblois used graphic design to increase the likelihood that his newspapers advertisements would attract the attention of prospective customers interested in the “very large Assortment of Winter Goods” available at his shop on School Street in Boston in the fall of 1771.  Rather than publish a dense block of text like most of his competitors who advertised, he instead opted for arranging the copy in the shape of a diamond.  The shopkeeper did so consistently in three newspapers printed in Boston, starting with the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on September 30 and then continuing in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on October 3.  The unique design likely made his advertisement notable for readers who saw it once and even more memorable for anyone who encountered variations of it in two or three newspapers.

In most instances, advertisers were responsible for generating the copy for their notices and then compositors determined the format.  On occasion, however, advertisers like Deblois made special requests, submitted instructions, or possibly even consulted with printers and compositors about how they wanted their advertisements to appear.  The compositors at the first two newspapers who ran Deblois’s advertisement took different approaches.  In the Boston Evening-Post, the text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle and formed an irregular diamond that filled the entire space purchased by the shopkeeper.  In contrast, the compositor for the Boston-Gazette used the same copy but arranged it in lines of increasing and then decreasing length to form a diamond surrounded by a significant amount of white space.  Though different, both sorts of diamonds made Deblois’s advertisements much more visible in the pages of the newspapers.  The advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury followed the latter design, but the compositor did not merely copy it from the Boston-Gazette.  The advertisement published on October 3 had a longer list of goods that the compositor had to accommodate in the design.

The copy itself did not distinguish Deblois’s advertisements from others that appeared in any of the newspapers published in Boston, but intentional choices about the format made his notices distinctive.  Deblois stocked the same merchandise “Just Imported from LONDON” as his competitors, but he used innovative design to generate interest among consumers who had many choices.

October 2

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (September 30, 1771).

“Choice Bohea, Souchon, and Hyson Tea.”

In the fall of 1771, Gilbert Deblois deployed graphic design to distinguish his newspaper advertisements from those placed by his competitors.  On September 30, he ran an advertisement with a unique format in the Boston Evening-Post.  The text ran upward at forty-five degree angles, creating an irregular diamond that filled the entire block of space he purchased in that issue.  That same day, he ran an advertisement featuring the same copy arranged in another distinctive format in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette.  The text once again formed a diamond, that one created by centering lines of text of progressively longer and then shorter lengths.  In contrast to the advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post, this one incorporated a significant amount of white space into Deblois’s notice.

That these advertisements appeared simultaneously in two newspapers published in Boston demonstrated that Deblois carefully coordinated an advertising campaign intended to attract attention with its unusual typography.  The compositors at the Boston Evening-Post and Boston-Gazette would not have independently decided to experiment with the format of Deblois’s advertisements.  Instead, the shopkeeper must have worked with the compositors or at least sent instructions to the printing offices to express his wishes for innovative graphic design.

In most instances, advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to produce an appropriate format.  Advertisements that ran in multiple newspapers often had variations in font size, capitalization, and italics according to the preference of the compositors, even as the copy remained consistent.  On occasion, however, advertisers assumed greater control over the design of their notices, creating spectacles on the page.  Both of Deblois’s notices demanded attention from readers because they deviated visually so significantly from anything else in the newspaper.  Deblois did not have to commission a woodcut or include a variety of ornamental type in his notices in order for them to stand out from others.  He achieved that by working with the compositors to determine what they could accomplish solely by arranging the text in unexpected ways.

September 30

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 30, 1771).

“A very large Assortment of Winter Goods.”

Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers consisted text unadorned with images, though some did feature woodcuts depicting ships, houses, enslaved people, horses, or, even less frequently, shop signs.  Despite the lack of images, advertisers and compositors sometimes experimented with graphic design in order to draw attention to newspaper notices.  Some of those efforts were rather rudimentary.  In the September 30, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, Hopestill Capen’s name served as the headline for his advertisement.  That was not unusual, but the size of the font was.  Larger than the names of any other merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in that issue, the size of Capen’s name demanded attention for his advertisement.  Thomas Lee pursued a similar strategy with a headline proclaiming “SILKS” in a large font.

Capen and Lee may or may not have consulted with the printer or compositor about those elements of their advertisements.  They may have submitted the copy and left the design to the compositor.  Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, almost certainly gave instructions or even spoke with the compositor concerning the unique format of his advertisement.  The text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle, distinguishing it from anything else that appeared in the pages of the Boston Evening-Post.  Deblois hawked a “very large Assortment of Winter Goods, with every other Kind imported from Great-Britain.”  In so doing, he used formulaic language that appeared in countless other advertisements in the 1760s and early 1770s.  Yet he devised a way to make his message more interesting and noticeable.  That likely required a greater investment on his part.  Advertisers usually paid for the amount of space their notices occupied, not by the word, but in this case setting type at an angle required extraordinary work on the part of the compositor.  Reorienting Deblois’s advertisement was not merely a matter of selecting a larger font, incorporating more white space, or including ornamental type for visual interest.

Deblois carried many of the same goods as Capen, Caleb Blanchard, and Nathan Frazier, all of them competitors who placed much longer advertisements listing the many items among their merchandise.  Rather than confront consumers with the many choices available to them at his shop, Deblois instead opted to incite interest for his “large Assortment of Winter Good” using graphic design to draw attention to his advertising copy.  The unique format of his advertisement made it stand out among the dozens that appeared in that issue of the Boston Evening-Post.

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?

jan-12-1121766-boston-evening-post
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.