September 3

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

Sep 3 - 9:3:1770 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (September 3, 1770).

“It is presumed preference will be given to NAILS manufactured here.”

As fall approached in 1770, the nonimportation agreement remained in effect in Boston.  Parliament had repealed most of the duties on imported goods, but taxes on tea remained.  Although New York already resumed trade with Britain, debates continued in Boston and Philadelphia about whether that partial victory was sufficient to return to business as usual.

It was in that context that Harbottle Dorr advertised nails and other items in the Boston Evening-Post, grounding his marketing appeals in politics.  Like many other merchants and shopkeepers, he listed the various merchandise available at his shop.  He prefaced his list, however, by noting that the items enumerated first were “manufactured in this Town” rather than imported from Britain.  Those goods included “choice hammered Pewter Dishes & Plates, Cod and Mackrel Lines, best Copper Tea Kettles, all sizes of Porringers, Quart Pots, [and] Basons,” yet he started with “10d.* and 20d. Nails, warranted tough.”  The asterisk directed readers to a short sermon that encouraged them to buy goods produced in the colonies that appeared at the end of the advertisement.  “*It is presumed,” Dorr lectured, “preference will be given to NAILS manufactured here, (not only on patriotic Principles, and to discourage the PRESENT Importers, –but) as they really are better in Quality than most English Nails, being far tougher.”  Dorr linked several appeals that supporters of the nonimportation agreement often combined.  Buying American goods, Dorr and others argued, was not merely a statement of political principles but also a smart choice when it came to quality.  Consumers did not need to worry about purchasing inferior goods, in this case nails, when they bought items made in the colonies.

Yet Dorr also stocked imported goods in addition to domestic manufactures, including “all sorts Pad & Door Locks,” “London Pewter Dishes and Plates,” and “good Combs.”  He emphasized, however, that those items “have been imported above THREE YEARS.”  In other words, Dorr acquired them before the nonimportation agreement went into effect.  He had not violated the pact and prospective customers could purchase those items with confidence that they did not act contrary to the nonimportation agreement.

Whether selling domestic manufactures or imported goods, Dorr made politics the focal point of his marketing efforts.  Even as some merchants, shopkeepers, and consumers advocated for following New York’s lead in resuming trade with Britain, he challenged them to consider “patriotic Principles” as they made their decisions about commerce.  Perhaps sensing that it was only a matter of time before the nonimportation agreement came to an end, he also made additional arguments in favor of nails produced in the colonies, noting their superior quality.

November 20

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

Nov 20 - 11:20:1769 Boston-Gazette
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (November 20, 1769).

“TO BE SOLD BY Harbottle Dorr …”

Harbottle Dorr is not a household name today, but Dorr remains well known among historians of early America, especially those who study either the role of the press in the American Revolution or the participation of ordinary people in efforts to resist the various abuses perpetrated by Parliament.

Dorr placed an advertisement for nails and “a good Assortment of Braziery, Ironmongery and Pewter Ware” in the supplement that accompanied the November 20, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. At the time, Dorr, a merchant and a member of the Sons of Liberty was doing far more than just advertising in the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers. He was also collecting, annotating, and indexing them as a means of constructing his own narrative of the imperial crisis. As the Massachusetts Historical Society notes in its online collection of those newspapers, Dorr sought “to form a political history.” (Visit The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. to explore the newspapers and indexes that Dorr arranged into four volumes.) “Dorr was well-versed in the heated politics of the day,” the Massachusetts Historical Society continues, “and he annotated many newspaper pages with his opinions, cross-references to articles elsewhere in his collection, and sometimes noted the identity of anonymous contributors to the newspapers.” His index filled 133 pages and included 4,969 terms.

Dorr’s index included advertisements, including this entry: “Advertisement of H.D., about discouraging the Importers &c.” That entry referenced an advertisement that Dorr placed in the Boston Evening-Post on September 3, 1770. Much more extensive than the brief notice that ran nearly nine months earlier in the Boston-Gazette, it offered political commentary that encouraged consumers to encourage production of goods in the colonies by choosing them over imported alternatives. “It is presumed,” Dorr declared, “preference will be given to NAILS manufactured here, (not only on patriotic Principles, and to discourage the PRESENT Importers,— but) as they really are better in Quality than most English Nails, being far tougher.”

In chronicling the advertising landscape in colonial America in 1769, I have frequently chosen advertisements that implicitly or explicitly commented on the Townshend Acts and the nonimportation agreements adopted in Boston and other cities and towns. I have argued that both advertisers and readers looked beyond news items and editorials when considering the politics of the period. In his annotations and index, Dorr confirms that he did indeed view advertisements for consumer goods as a political tool, not just a means of marketing his wares. His “political history” of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution included advertisers and the messages they communicated to colonial consumers.

July 20

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

Jul 20 - 7:20:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (July 20, 1767). Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. View the advertisement and the rest of the newspaper via The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.

“Just Imported, and to be Sold by Harbottle Dorr.”

Harbottle Dorr’s name jumped off the page when I first spotted this advertisement in the July 20, 1767, edition of the Boston-Gazette. In terms of content and format, his notice was not particularly distinctive. So why did this particular advertisement catch my eye? Why did it create an extra spark of excitement?

In 1767, residents of Boston knew Harbottle Dorr as a merchant, in part because he advertised in several of the local newspapers. In the course of the next quarter century, he joined the Sons of Liberty and “served intermittently as a Boston selectman for many years between 1777 and 1791.” Today he is best known to historians, especially historians of print culture, thanks to his collection of newspapers from the period of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution, now in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. As the MHS explains, “Beginning in 1765, Dorr spent more than a dozen years purchasing newspapers, writing comments in margins, inserting reference marks in articles, and assembling indexes.” He aimed “to form a political history” of events as he witnessed and participated in them. His indexes and annotations demonstrate one reader’s intensive engagement with the public prints. Thanks to digitization and other technologies, scholars and the general public have access to The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., via the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

In addition to advertising in the July 20 issue of the Boston-Gazette, Dorr also acquired a copy for his collection. It does not appear, however, that he purchased every newspaper that ran one of his advertisements. For instance, he inserted the same advertisement in the July 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post, but that issue is not in the collection he assembled. At the very least, he did not save or add issues merely because they published his commercial notices. He may have confirmed that his advertisements indeed appeared as expected, but that was not sufficient reason for inclusion in his project.

Still, today’s advertisement has a unique twist compared to most others featured by the Adverts 250 Project, though a twist rendered more complex by digitization of historical sources. In most cases, the provenance of the original issue makes little difference. This advertisement, however, came from a copy originally possessed by the advertiser himself. In preparing today’s entry, I consulted Dorr’s newspaper to write about his advertisement. Or did I? Does it make sense to feel a connection to the material text – to feel excited that Dorr owned, touched, and annotated this particular issue – when I have not actually used the physical manifestation of that issue but a digital surrogate instead? Maybe, but maybe not.

In the past I have joined other scholars in arguing that digitized sources are best used as complements to, rather than replacements of, original sources. After all, sometimes consulting originals yields answers just not possible to achieve when examining digital surrogates, despite their many advantages. This response, however, does not factor in the emotional component of archival work, the excitement scholars feel when handling the things owned by the people we study, a physical connection that defies the passage of time.

Yet I still experienced a flash of excitement when I examined today’s advertisement via The Annotated papers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., that I did not feel when I first saw the advertisement in Readex’s database of America’s Historical Newspapers. I feel a greater connection to the advertisement inserted in the Boston-Gazette, part of Dorr’s collection, than I do to the advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post, not in his collection, even though it was the same advertisement. Even mediated by digitization, “seeing” the original yields emotional satisfaction. In that regard, the Massachusetts Historical Society has done an even greater service than I previously realized. Their online collection of Dorr’s newspapers has enhanced my experience by associating a person with the material text.