March 17

GUEST CURATOR:  Matthew Holbrook

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

Essex Gazette (March 17, 1772).

“A large ASSORTMENT of Hard-Ware GOODS.”

I found that this advertisement interesting because Jacob Ashton owned a shop in Salem, Massachusetts, about 50 miles from my hometown. I connected with this advertisement because my grandfather was a carpenter who owned a small shop and sold similar materials. Jacob Ashton sold a wide variety of hardware and other goods, including nails, case knives, hammers, teaspoons and tablespoons, frying pans, knitting needles, gun powder, cinnamon, brass clocks, and just about anything in between.

In the “Meet the Carpenter” podcast from Colonial Williamsburg, master carpenter Garlin Wood explains what it was like to be a carpenter during the era of the American Revolution. In particular, he describes the differences between different woodworkers. A carpenter focused on the construction of the timber frame. A joiner used similar tools as a carpenter but focused on the finishing of the house, such as panel doors and paneling. A cabinetmaker focused on constructing furniture that belonged inside the house. Garlin describes the importance that carpenters and other woodworkers had in early America. In Colonial Williamsburg, then and now, carpenters built everything by hand and used tools such as chisels and mallets. According to Garlin, many carpenters in early America were savvy businessmen who used their trade to move into the gentry. When it comes to his work as a carpenter, he likes the idea of putting a roof over other people’s heads.



When I invite students enrolled in my classes to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project, I am always interested in which advertisements they choose to feature and which aspects of those advertisements they choose to examine in greater detail.  I appreciate that they select advertisements that I might have otherwise overlooked, that they investigate aspects that did not initially resonate for me and, in the process, demonstrate the significance of something that I might have otherwise dismissed, and that they identify a range of sources about early American history.  As guest curators, my students are junior colleagues who help me to continue learning and asking new questions about familiar sources even as I engage in mentoring and teaching them.

That was the case when working with Matt on this entry.  In his absence, I would have chosen a different advertisement in the Essex Gazette, one in which Abraham Cornish offered a guarantee on the fishhooks he made in Boston and pledged to provide two new hooks for each one found defective.  In his role as guest curator, however, Matt determined which advertisement he wanted to examine … and then demonstrated why his choice was just as sound as the one I would have made.  If I had chosen to analyze Ashton’s advertisement for “Hard-Ware GOODS,” I would have focused primarily on the range of choices he offered to consumers and the low prices that he promised.  Matt, inspired by his grandfather, instead opted to examine the kinds of work undertaken by the customers who purchased many of the items listed in Ashton’s advertisement.  He identified the various roles of woodworkers in early America, outlining the contributions of carpenters, joiners, and cabinetmakers.  To do so, he sought information from a public historian who interprets the past through re-creating the experiences of eighteenth-century carpenters at Colonial Williamsburg.  In working on a digital humanities project for his college course about the era of the American Revolution, Matt consulted the expertise of a public historian, demonstrating that no one kind of historian has a monopoly on knowledge about the past.  Matt’s experience as a guest curator, the many ways in which his contribution enhances the Adverts 250 Project, underscores why I believe it is so important to incorporate my own research and digital humanities projects into the classes I teach.

July 26

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

Jul 26 - 7:26:1766 Connecticut Gazette
Connecticut Gazette (July 26, 1766).

“LUKE BABCOCK, At his Shop in New Haven, has to sell … Nails, … Irish Linnens, … Raisins.”

Shopkeeper Luke Babcock’s list-style advertisement would have looked very familiar to colonial consumers. It did not elaborate much on the merchandise he stocked, except to not that Babcock sold his wares “at the most reasonable Rate.” The variety of goods – everything from “Brass Knobs” to “genuine black Barcelona Handkerchiefs” to “Lisbon Wine by the Quarter Cask” – comprised the advertisement’s primary marketing appeal, promising potential customers an assortment of choices. So many advertisers used this method of promoting their goods in eighteenth-century America that at a glance this advertisement appears indistinguishable from so many others.

On closer examination, however, it appears that Babcock introduced an innovation not readily apparent in advertisements published by many of his counterparts and competitors. His advertisement was carefully organized. Similar types of products were grouped together rather than appearing in an undifferentiated and disorienting list. Babcock first named hardware items, then textiles, and, finally, groceries. To make it even easier to navigate the advertisement, each major category had its own paragraph.

While this may seem like such common sense today that it should merit no comment, the format of this advertisement must be considered in the context of other eighteenth-century advertisements and the printing practices that shaped them. Babcock’s marketing may not have been flashy, but he attempted to make it more effective by helping readers better grasp the extent of his offerings and find merchandise that most interested them. It’s even possible that such careful organization on the printed page helped potential customers to imagine the layout of his shop, envisioning themselves examining the merchandise available in the section where hardware was stocked or in another area of the shop where textiles were displayed. Where other list-style advertisements often presented chaos, Babcock brought order to his goods, guiding consumers to the items they wanted or needed.