May 25

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

May 25 - 5:25:1770 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (May 25, 1770).

I the Subscriber now carry on the Hatting Business.”

Witnessing the sense of accomplishment that undergraduate students experience when they work with digitized primary sources is one of my favorite parts of having them serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project when they enroll in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Slavery in America, Public History, and Research Methods courses.  Much of that sense of accomplishment comes from learning to read eighteenth-century newspapers, a more difficult task than some initially expect.

Consider this advertisement from the May 25, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette.  It is not indecipherable, but it does require some effort to read, even for those with experience working with eighteenth-century newspapers.  The quality of the printing and the paper, including text bleeding through from the other side of the page, makes the advertisement more difficult to read than the crisp and clear text in books and articles students are more accustomed to reading.  They discover that historians must work with primary sources of varying condition.  The deviations in spelling compared to twenty-first century standards also present a minor challenge, including “Hatts” for “Hats,” “Furr” for “Fur,” and “chuse” for “choose” in this advertisement.  Shifts in the meaning of words over a quarter of a millennium also allow opportunities to consider context in the process of understanding what advertisers said when they used language that now seems strange.  In this advertisement, William Capron described himself as “I the Subscriber,” but he did not mean that he paid to receive the newspaper.  Instead, he deployed the common eighteenth-century usage of the word “subscriber” to mean “a person who signs his or her name to a document,” in this case the advertisement itself.

Perhaps the most significant sense of achievement for many students comes from decoding the “long “s” that they initially mistake for an “f” in eighteenth-century newspapers and other primary sources.  In this advertisement, Capron addressed his “former Customers, present Creditors, and the Public in general,” but to students with less experience reading such sources this phrase initially appears to say “former Cuftomers, prefent Creditors, and the Public.”  “Hatting Business” looks like “Hatting Bufinefs” and “too short for spinning” looks like “too fhort for fpinning.”  That Capron’s advertisement appeared in italics further compounds the difficulty for some readers.  For my part, I’ve become so accustomed to the “long s” that I no longer notice it.  When I began working with students on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, however, I quickly became aware that I took for granted how easily others with less experience reading eighteenth-century newspapers would adapt to the “long s.”  As an instructor, I’ve learned to take more time and to make more allowances for students to become comfortable with that particular element of eighteenth-century print culture.  I also reassure them that they will eventually recognize the “long s” merely as an “s.”  They might not even realize when the transition happens!

Primary sources of any sort are the cornerstone of college-level history courses.  In the absence of special collections and research libraries with original documents, access to digitized primary sources allows me to replicate the experience of working with materials from the eighteenth century.  In the process, students get a better sense of what how historians “do” history as they encounter and overcome these and other challenges.

April 20

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

Apr 20 - 4:20:1770 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (April 20, 1770).

“He makes and sells all Kinds of FELT HATS.”

In the late 1760s and early 1770s the New-London Gazette carried fewer advertisements than most other newspapers printed in the colonies, in large part due to being published in a smaller town than most of its counterparts.  Those advertisements that did appear in the New-London Gazette, however, tended to replicate the marketing strategies deployed in advertisements published in other newspapers.  T.H. Breen asserts that colonists experienced a standardization of consumer goods available for purchase from New England to Georgia.[1]  They also encountered a standardization in advertising practices when they read the notices in colonial newspaper.

Consider an advertisement that Abiezer Smith, “HATTER, at NORWICH-LANDING,” placed in the April 20, 1770, edition of the New-London Gazette.  He informed prospective customers that he had “served a regular Apprenticeship to the FELT MANUFACTURE.”  Artisans frequently listed their credentials, especially upon arriving in town from elsewhere or opening a new business.  Since they did not benefit from cultivating a reputation among local consumers over time, they adopted other means of signaling that they were qualified to follow the trade they advertised.  In addition to consumers, Smith addressed retailers, the “Merchants and Shopkeepers in the Country” that he hoped would stock his hats.

Smith also made an appeal to quality and connected it to contemporary political discourse, just as advertisers in Boston and New York were doing during at the time.  The hatter at Norwich Landing proclaimed that his hats were “equal in goodness to any manufactured in this Country.”  Yet that assurance of quality was not sufficient.  He also declared his wares were preferable to any imported from Europe or elsewhere.”  Although the duties on most imported goods had been repealed, news had not yet arrived in the colonies.  For the moment, Smith stood to benefit from nonimportation agreements that prompted consumers to purchase “domestic manufactures” instead, provided that he made prospective customers aware of his product.  For retailers, he offered a new source of merchandise.  Even though his appeal would have less political resonance in the coming months, the quality remained consistent.  Many colonial consumers tended to prefer imported goods, but Smith offered an alternative that did not ask them to sacrifice the value for their money.

Smith’s advertisement could have appeared in any other newspaper in the colonies.  Indeed, given the scarcity of advertising in the New-London Gazette, he very well may have consulted (or at least had in mind) newspapers from other towns and cities when he wrote the copy for his advertisement.  His appeals that invoked his training, the quality of his wares, and the political significance of purchasing his hats made his advertisement resemble others placed by American artisans in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (1988): 81-84

January 4

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

jan-4-131767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (January 3, 1767).

“FOUND … a Silver Knee Buckle.”

Lost and found notices frequently appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers. Colonists not only purchased consumer goods; they sometimes misplaced their possessions and placed advertisements in hopes of reclaiming them. Colonists who found lost items also sometimes helped to reunite them with their owners. Such was the case in today’s advertisement: Elihu Robinson announced that he had “FOUND” a silver knee buckle “in the Main Street, Providence,” a week earlier on December 27. He wanted to return it to its owner, but only once the owner paid “the Charge of advertising.”

That would have been the extent of most lost and found notices, but Robinson opted to add a few lines about the business he operated. He reminded former customers “and the Public in general” that he made “Beaver, Beaveret, and Felt Hats” at his shop. In the process, he incorporated an appeal to price, stating that he was “determined to sell as cheap for Cash, as any in Boston, New-York, or any Person in this Town.” In so doing, he followed a recent trend in advertisements published in the Providence Gazette by expressing concern that too many local consumers purchased their goods from shopkeepers, artisans, and suppliers in other urban ports in the region, especially the larger and more bustling cities of Boston and New York. In another advertisement in the same issue, shopkeeper James Green pledged that he sold his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” More so than in any other colony, advertisers in Rhode Island encouraged prospective customers to shop locally.

Robinson’s advertisement may appear disjointed at first glance. The headline in a larger font, “FOUND,” described a silver knee buckle, but most of the advertisement promoted the hats Robinson made and sold at his shop and promises about low prices. Although seemingly unrelated, the lost-and-found notice served an important purpose. Robinson signaled to customers that they could trust his claims about offering lower prices than anywhere else in Providence or other cities because he was such an honest man that he attempted to return a silver knee buckle that he found in the street to its rightful owner. Many eighteenth-century advertisers assured readers about the quality of their character. Elihu Robinson provided a practical demonstration. Customers could trust him.