February 6

GUEST CURATOR: Declan Dunbar

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 6, 1772).

“IRISH LINNENS.”

This advertisement is about an item that many colonists purchased in the years before the American Revolution. Colonists imported Irish linens as part of what we now call the consumer revolution. In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen describes how many American colonists sought goods imported from the British Isles as part of the consumer revolution.[1] Those goods, including linens imported from England, Scotland, and Ireland, gave them a sense of camaraderie with Britain at a time when most colonists were proud to be subjects of the British Crown. In “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” N.B. Harte states, “[T]he American colonies up to the revolution provided the bulk of the export market for English linens. It is difficult to dis-entangle re-exports of Scottish and Irish linen through London and exports of English Linen.”[2] In this advertisement, William Beatty declared that he imported Irish linens “from the Manufacturers at BELFAST, in the North of Ireland” as part of the larger market that connected the British Isles and the American colonies.

Not only did American colonists depend on England, Scotland, and Ireland as a source of linens at the time, British merchants depended on the colonies as customers and a main source of their income as well. When the colonists first started to rebel against the British, one of the first items they boycotted was linen and other fabrics from overseas in favor of homespun cloth made in the colonies. The colonists wanted to show Britain how resilient they were, but they also believed that hurting the profits of British merchants would cause them to demand that Parliament repeal duties on imported goods. Colonists used decisions about buying imported linens as economic leverage to achieve political goals. Linens, although they might seem insignificant, contributed a great deal to the economy and were part of the American Revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Declan explores some of the major themes from my Revolutionary America class.  We examine several kinds of protests from the period, including petitions by colonial assemblies, nonimportation agreements by colonial merchants, and demonstrations by colonizers.  We situate nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements within the context of the consumer revolution.  Despite the sense of British identity and close ties to Britain that colonizers experienced when they participated in a transatlantic consumer revolution, that did not prevent them from using trade as a political tool when they believed that Parliament infringed on their rights by imposing duties on certain imported goods.  Although colonizers in America did not benefit from direct representation in Parliament, British merchants did. American colonizers hoped that if they disrupted the marketplace then British merchants would join them in demanding that Parliament repeal the objectionable import duties.

Textiles became an important political symbol in the colonies.  Colonizers produced homespun cloth, usually not of the same quality as imported alternatives.  The quality hardly mattered compared to the symbolism of producing, purchasing, and wearing homespun.  This occurred within what Harte describes as a “dual economy” for linen in the colonies.  “[B]asic linen needs were provided outside the market by the widespread domestic production of homespun coarse linen, while the market was dominated by a range of better-quality (though still low-priced) linens imported from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and imported too from the continent of Europe (especially Germany) via London.”[3]  Embracing homespun, women participated in spinning bees.  College graduates wore suits made of homespun to ceremonies.  Consumers made choices about what to buy … and what not to buy.  All of those activities had political valences, communicating support for nonimportation agreements and opposition to Parliament.  Harte argues that linen “became the most important single commodity shipped across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century.”  That helped to make homespun a powerful symbol, especially in those years that colonizers participated in nonimportation agreements.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’:  The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988):  73-104.

[2] N.B. Harte, “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings (1990): 19.

[3] Harte, “British Linen Trade,” 15.

April 21

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Bohane

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

Apr 21 - 4:21:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 21, 1768).

“New Rice by the Cask.”

Thomas Walley sold “New Rice by the Cask” at his “Store, on Dock-Square.” Rice was one of the most profitable goods cultivated in colonial America. According to James M. Clifton, settlers from Barbados and other colonies in the West Indies introduced rice to South Carolina. Colonists there had much to learn about rice, doing so through trial and error. The earliest mention of rice shipment recorded was in 1692, but after that point it became a staple crop, one that supported much of the economy for the entire colony.[1] In order to reduce the amount of strenuous labor required to produce this popular commodity, colonists in South Carolina sought to perfect machines and mills that could aid in processing rice.[2] Unfortunately, this proved quite unsuccessful and remained a challenging process throughout the colonial period. Rice crops became more profitable, however, with the labor of black slaves who worked on plantations and knew how to properly cultivate rice.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to “New Rice by the Cask,” Thomas Walley also peddled a variety of other goods. He emphasized textiles and “all sorts of Groceries,” such as tea, olive oil, and mustard. The assortment of fabrics available at his store included “homespun check,” cloth that had been woven in the colonies rather than imported from England. Walley did not explicitly link his products to the imperial crisis that had intensified six months earlier when the Townshend Act went into effect, but he did offer prospective customers the opportunity to participate in a larger coordinated effort to resist Parliament’s attempts to impose taxes for the purpose of raising revenue without the consent of the colonies. Several months before Walley’s advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette, the Boston Town Meeting (followed by many others) had voted to use commerce as leverage in the political dispute with Parliament. They pledged to encourage “American manufactures” rather than continue their dependence on imported goods. In so doing, they acknowledged that in order to change their consumption habits that they first needed to modify the amount of goods produced in the colonies.

Just as this advertisement obscures the role of enslaved labor in producing “New Rice by the Cask,” it also obscures the role women played in this political strategy. Barred from participating in the formal mechanisms of government, women pursued other avenues when it came to participating in resistance efforts during the imperial crisis that culminated in the Revolution. American women produced Walley’s “homespun Check,” first spinning the thread and then weaving it into checkered cloth. Women also made choices about which goods to consume, their decisions extending to entire households. Women who purchased homespun could make very visible political statements by outfitting every member of their families in garments made from that cloth. The meanings of consumption increasingly took on political valences in the late 1760s and into the 1770s. In that realm, women often exercised as much power as men as they exercised their judgment in selecting which goods to acquire and which to reject. Their decisions reverberated beyond the point of purchase; everyday use of clothing, housewares, groceries, and other goods advertised in newspapers and sold by merchants and shopkeepers became laden with political significance.

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[1] James M. Clifton, “The Rice Industry in Colonial America,” Agricultural History 55, no. 3 (July 1981): 267.

[2] Clifton, “Rice Industry,” 278.

March 29

GUEST CURATOR:  Mary Aldrich

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

Mar 29 - 3:28:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 28, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD by John Sparhawk, AT KITTERY POINT, Good HEMP-SEED.”

Hemp was a valuable commodity in eighteenth century America because it was used to make the ropes that were on every ship in this period. According to Ben Swenson at Colonial Williamsburg, all of the colonies grew hemp because of its ability to grow virtually anywhere. By the eighteenth century, the colonies of Virginia and Maryland grew the most hemp, but for farmers in New Hampshire it was still a valuable crop.

Farmers were profit driven and the best way to grow hemp to get nice long fibers to be used for ropes was to plant them close together. This limited the amount of female flowers the plants were able to produce, which is location of the greatest concentration of THC. (Colonists did know about the hallucinogenic properties of hemp.) Besides rope, hemp was used to make cloth for clothes and sacks, paper, and bed ticking, which kept the feathers or straw of the mattress from poking through. The cloth made from hemp grown in the colonies was especially valued when the colonists began to boycott goods from England. The growing and processing of hemp was already so well established that colonists were easily able to either grow more hemp or set aside a larger amount for the production of homespun.

The processing of hemp was difficult; after it was cut and rotted the waste had to be removed from the desired long fibers. The hemp needed to be rotted because it would loosen the fibers from the woody interior and the bark. The process of breaking the hemp separated the fibers from much of the waste. Afterward it needed to be beaten and scraped, then combed to remove the rest of the waste from the strands. Only then was the hemp suitable to be processed into its final product.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

At first glance today’s advertisement appears rather bland, but Mary’s analysis demonstrates why it is an appropriate sequel to yesterday’s featured advertisement for Barnabas Clarke’s shop “Near Liberty-Bridge” in Portsmouth. The two appeared on the same page of the New-Hampshire Gazette, Sparhawk’s about two-thirds of the way down the second column and Clarke’s filling the top half of the third and final column.

Clarke explicitly invoked many colonists’ sentiments about their relationship to Parliament when he listed the location of his shop, which would have called to mind the protests against the Stamp Act that occurred quite recently, less than three months earlier. Sparhawk, on the other hand, did not make reference to such difficulties, but, given the ubiquity of hemp in the colonial world, most colonists would have been aware that it was a resource for creating homespun. Sparhawk’s advertisement played off what colonists knew about nonconsumption and nonimportation even as it encouraged consumption of an alternate product. As the article from Colonial Williamsburg cited above explains, in the coming years newspapers increasingly encouraged growing and using hemp as a means of resistance as the imperial crisis intensified.

Mar 29 - Slave Ad 3:28:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 28, 1766).

Given that the advertisements for yesterday and today each had connections to colonists’ understanding of liberty, it is worth noting a third advertisement that appeared on this page of the New-Hampshire Gazette, immediately to the right of Sparkhawk’s advertisement and a bit below Clarke’s. While Clarke peddled his wares “Near Liberty-Bridge” and Sparhawk offered a product that could help colonists reduce commercial ties with an oppressive England, readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette could purchase “A Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years of Age.” Once again, slavery and freedom were intertwined in the advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette.