January 23

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

Providence Gazette (January 23, 1773).

“Opposite the East End of the Great Bridge.”

American cities and towns did not have standardized street numbers before the American Revolution.  Some of the largest cities began assigning street numbers in the late 1780s and 1790s, but prior to that residents and visitors relied on combinations of shop signs, landmarks, and directions of varying lengths to specify the locations of homes and businesses.

Consider how some advertisers directed prospective customers to their shops in advertisements that ran in the January 23, 1773, edition of the Providence Gazette.  Joseph fuller made and sold tools “At his Shop in Broad-street, on the West Side of the Great Bridge, next Door to Samuel Nightingale, Esq.”  Thomas Stoddard and Benjamin Clap established a smithy “on the East Side of the Great Bridge, opposite Dr, Sterling’s.”  Daniel Spencer, a cabinet- and chairmaker, had a workshop “Opposite the East End of the Great Bridge, in Providence.”  Not all advertisers listed their locations in relation to the Great Bridge, but enough did so to demonstrate that it was a major landmark in the city.

The Great Bridge connected the portions of Providence located on opposite sides of the basin created by the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers.  A map of the “BAY of NARRAGANSET in the Province of NEW-ENGLAND,” published in London in 1777, shows the larger part of the city on the eastern side of the basin, the smaller part on the western side, and a bridge connecting the two.  According to an account of the Providence Great-Bridge Lottery of 1790, the bridge measured twelve feet wide when constructed in 1711 and eighteen feet wide following alterations in 1744.  Following the lottery, the bridge was widened to fifty-six feet in the early 1790s.  Although it was not as “great” in terms of width in 1773 as it would become by the end of the century, the Great Bridge served as an important landmark that artisans and other entrepreneurs noted when directing prospective customers to their businesses.

May 16

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

May 16 - 5:16:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 16, 1767)

“Customers coming from the Westward, may save both Time and Shoe-Leather by calling at their aforesaid Shops.”

Playful patter was not usually part of eighteenth-century advertisements, but James Brown and Benoni Pearce needed to do something to compensate for the location of their shops “On the West Side of the Great-Bridge … in Providence.” That put them beyond the center of the small city, founded on the east side of the basin created by the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers. A map drawn by a British military surveyor, published in London in 1777, shows that Providence primarily stretched along the east side of the basin. This included a fort and the college (now Brown University). However, some colonists built homes and businesses on the west side of the basin. The Great Bridge, first constructed in 1711 and widened in 1744, connected one side of basin to the other.

May 16 - Detail of Map
Detail of Charles Blaskowitz, A Topographical Chart of the Bay of Narraganset in the Province of New England (London: Engraved and Printed for William Faden, 1777). Courtesy Library of Congress.

Realizing that many of their competitors were clustered along the streets on the east side, Brown and Pearce decided to promote their location as a convenience for some of the readers of the Providence Gazette. Especially for those who resided beyond the small port, the shopkeepers “think that their Customers coming from the Westward, may save both Time and Shoe-Leather by calling at their aforesaid Shops.” There was no need to cross the Great Bridge! Doing so, the shopkeepers slyly hinted, wasted valuable time and resources when they could simply choose from among the “neat Assortment of GOODS, suitable for the Season” that Brown and Pearce stocked in their shops. At the same time, the shopkeepers did not want their neighbors to the east to feel unwelcome. They pledged that “those on the other Side, will be well paid for crossing the Pavements, and be kindly received and well used.” It was a waste of time (and shoe leather!) to cross the bridge to visit the shops to the east, but well worth the time to cross in the opposite direction. Other virtues, including good service and a kind reception, more than made up for any inconvenience or extra time spent reaching their shops.

The banter in Brown and Pearce’s advertisement made it memorable. They did not consider it necessary to enumerate their assortment of goods or make detailed promises about low prices. Instead, they let their affable demeanor do the work of attracting customers to “the West Side of the Great-Bridge” to do their shopping.

January 18

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

Providence Gazette (January 17, 1767).

A Quantity of good Cheese, to be sold … ON the West Side of the Great Bridge.”

When Caleb Harris announced that he sold a “Quantity of good Cheese … ON the West Side of the Great Bridge, in Providence,” he invoked a landmark familiar to residents of the town, one that other advertisers in the Providence Gazette frequently used to direct potential customers to their businesses as well. In the same issue, for instance, Thompson and Arnold advertised “their Shop near the Great Bridge, in Providence.” Where was the Great Bridge?

Rhode Island Currency provides a brief history of the Great Bridge, as well as images of Great-Bridge Lottery Tickets printed and distributed in October 1790. The Great Bridge connected the confluence of Westminster and Weybosset Streets to Market Square. (See a map drawn in 1790 by a student at the College of Rhode Island, now Brown University.) A bridge had originally been constructed at that site in 1711. The first span measured only twelve feet wide, but in 1744 the Great Bridge was widened to eighteen feet. In the early 1790s the Great-Bridge Lottery funded a further expansion of the bridge to fifty-six feet. According to Welcome Arnold Greene, the “eastern abutment was extended forty feet into the river to allow room for a proposed ‘Water Street’ to pass over.”

As Providence became an even more prosperous and populated port city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the crossing at the site of the original Great Bridge continued to expand. Over the years city planners joined together several bridges into a single decking that covered approximately two acres of the Providence River. In the process, the appearance of downtown Providence transformed significantly. What had originally been the modest Great Bridge of the colonial era became the 1147-feet-wide Crawford Bridge, recognized as the “widest bridge in the world” by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Crawford Bridge no longer exists. In efforts to revitalize the downtown district in the 1990s, Providence removed the Crawford Street Bridge, uncovering the Providence River and its tributaries, the Woonasquatucket and the Moshassuck. (This allowed for creation of the popular WaterFire festival that takes place throughout the year, though mostly in warmer months, in Providence.) Half a dozen or so smaller bridges allow traffic and pedestrians to cross the river and its tributaries.

Although the Great Bridge itself no longer exists, residents and visitors to Providence experience a riverfront that today more closely resembles its appearance during the colonial era than it did throughout most of the twentieth century. Urban renewal actually returned aspects of the city to its eighteenth-century past.