What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“It would be more for his Advantage to supply the Bellies, rather than the Backs of his Customers.”
Eighteenth-century newspapers often carried references that readers presumably found amusing yet confound modern readers, even historians who have immersed themselves, as much as possible, in the culture of the period. Such references usually appeared among the news and commentary, but they sometimes found their way into advertisements as well.
That seems to have been the case in an advertisement that Robert Nesbitt ran in the Providence Gazette in January and February 1772. Nesbitt informed the public that he ran a shop at the location formerly occupied by Benoni Pearce. Rather than simply state that was the case, he provided a lengthy introduction likely meant to entertain readers. “BENONI PEARCE,” the shopkeeper proclaimed, “thinking it would be more for his Advantage to supply the Bellies, rather than the Backs of his Customers, has prudently left off Shopkeeping, and applied himself to baking Gingerbread.” Nesbitt deployed a clever turn of phrase in referring to Pearce’s decision to change occupations from selling textiles and garments to baking bread, though saying that Pearce “prudently” did so may have been a dig at the shopkeeper-turned-baker and his success as a retailer. Whatever the case, Benoni Pearce and Elijah Bacon announced that they had “opened a BAKE-HOUSE” in the October 27, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, more than a year earlier. Next came a reference that Nesbitt might have intended to be humorous … or an insult. He declared that Pearce sold his “best Quality” gingerbread, a rather specific item, “upon advantageous Terms to – himself.” What initially seemed to be an endorsement using the formulaic language of eighteenth-century advertisements became some sort of joke. Nesbitt may have meant it as a lighthearted observation that the baked goods that came out of Pearce’s oven were so good that the baker could not resist eating them himself. If Pearce was known as large man with a good-natured attitude about his size, the comment might have been friendly banter. On the other hand, Nesbitt may have intended for the entire introduction to mock Pearce. Perhaps it quickly became apparent that Pearce was not a skilled baker. In early August, Hope Still McNeal advertised that he “carries on the BAKING BUSINESS … at the Bake House lately occupied by Pearce and Bacon.” Either Pearce moved to a new location or did not last long in his new occupation.
Nesbitt did inject some jocularity into other portions of his advertisement. In promoting his “Neat ASSORTMENT of GOODS,” he asserted that they “are good, but he thinks Cash much better; for which Reason he thinks proper to inform the Public, that for a few Spanish milled Dollars (of which he is very fond) they may have any Article.” He almost certainly did not mean to depict himself as avaricious. Instead, Nesbitt sought to make clear that he wanted to make deals and offered bargains to his customers for the benefit of all involved. Saying that he was “very fond” of “Spanish milled Dollars” may have been a clever way of telling customers that he preferred cash rather than extending credit. He made his wares affordable, selling them “almost at their own Price” without significantly marking up what he had paid. That meant some really good deals; Nesbitt claimed that he set prices “some Twenty per Cent. lower than they are generally sold for in Great-Britain.”
Nesbitt incorporated humor into his advertisement for imported goods. Although it likely resonated with readers at the time, not all of the shopkeeper’s quips translate well for modern readers. All the same, he deployed humor, a staple of modern advertising, to an extent not present in most eighteenth-century advertisements.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ONE might be apt to think by Mr. Champneys’s advertisement that GEORGE LIVINGSTON is actually dead.”
George Livingston demonstrated his appreciation for drama in an advertisement offering his services as a broker in the September 27, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. “ONE might be apt to think by Mr. Champneys’s advertisement,” the broker acerbically observed, “that GEORGE LIVINGSTON is actually dead: Blessed be GOD the case is not so: He is still in the land of the living, and steps forth to inform his friends and the public, that he is in some measure able to do BUSINESS.” After such a theatrical introduction, Livingston returned to the familiar refrains that appeared in advertisements placed by others in his line of work. Familiar as Livingston’s appeals to his “FIDELITY and PUNCTUALITY” may have been, they likely garnered more notice from prospective clients as a result of Livingston’s unusual method of introducing himself.
Livingston inserted his advertisement in response to one from his former business partner that appeared the previous week as well as again in the same issue as the rebuttal. In that notice, Champneys announced that he “FOLLOWS the FACTORAGE BUSINESS by himself.” He offered his services to friends and former customers, promising that “they may depend on the same Diligence and constant Attendance as formerly.” Although some colonists placed advertisements when they dissolved business partnerships, Champneys did not mention Livingston at all. Neither advertisement reveals the conditions of their parting. Livingston’s notice could suggest that he took some umbrage at Champneys seemingly erasing their former association, but he also noted that he “proposes doing his business on Mr. Champneys’s, formerly Mr. Simmons’s, wharf.” They were not on such poor terms that Livingston refused to become a tenant of Champneys. Perhaps the two had parted amicably. Perhaps Champneys even laughed at the joke made possible by his own advertisement, even as the two brokers competed for the same clients. Formerly partners, they were now rivals in business. Invoking humor may have been a means for Livingston to attract his share of clients without denigrating his former partner’s own “FIDELITY and PUNCTUALITY.” Just because they were business rivals did not mean that Champneys and Livingston could not also be friendly rivals.
On April 14, 1777, the above advertisement appeared in Hugh Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Printed in New York City, which was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, the unusual advertisement alerted readers that anyone “going into the other Colonies” could buy “any Number of counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.”
Americans eagerly seized upon the advertisement as evidence of British support for the counterfeiting of Continental currency. Four days after its publication, George Washington wrote to Congress and included, among other intelligence, a copy of the advertisement, noting “that no Artifices are left untried by the Enemy to injure us.” When on May 12, the Connecticut Courant informed readers that two men had been taken north of New York City with quantities of counterfeit notes on them, it re-printed the advertisement, noting that “it seems they are tempted to follow this desperate employment by the terms offered in the following advertisement, taken from Hugh Gaine’s gazette.” The account of the counterfeiters’ capture and the re-printed advertisement subsequently appeared in newspapers throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia. By 1778, this one advertisement had been exaggerated into “weekly” and “repeated” advertisements in New York papers. Similarly, when nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians have weighed the possibility that the British sponsored counterfeiting, they have pointed to this advertisement as a smoking gun. The only problem with all of this? The advertisement is almost certainly a fake!
Counterfeit paper money proved a significant problem during the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, printing paper money was one of the only ways the Continental Congress could finance the war effort. Maintaining the integrity of the paper money was thus of the utmost importance. Counterfeiting, however, began from virtually the first emission of Continental bills by Congress in 1775. American newspapers were full of notices warning people about various counterfeits, both of Continental notes and notes printed by individual states. And it is clear that some of these counterfeits came from New York—for those with the skill to do it, the occupied city provided a perfect base of operations: British officials in New York had little incentive to prosecute people for producing the money of the rebel government.
While some people did produce counterfeits in the New York City, and likely sold them to others to pass, it seems unlikely that the advertisement in the New-York Gazette is a real advertisement for them. Appearing on the third page of the New-York Gazette, in form and in placement in the paper it looks much like any other advertisement. Though the items being sold are a bit unusual, the description of their quality seems like what we would expect from such a piece of marketing: the bills are “exactly executed” making “risque” of passing them minimal, as “proved” by the many that had already, according to the advertisement, been circulated. It’s the last line of the advertisement that raises suspicion: the hours to inquire are listed as “11 p.m. to 4 a.m.”—the middle of the night. Even more suspicious is the pseudonym given to direct enquiries to: Q.E.D., an abbreviation for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, a phrase typically used in mathematical proofs to indicate that what was set out to be proven has been proven.
So what exactly is going on here? Why would a loyalist newspaper run a counterfeit advertisement for counterfeit notes? And why was the advertisement re-printed and referenced so often by the Americans, despite the signs that it was a hoax?
As historian Benjamin Irvin has pointed out, Continental bills were widely ridiculed by British commentators. On October 28, 1776, for example, the same New-York Gazette that printed the counterfeit advertisement ran a mock wanted ad for Continental money:
In this context, it becomes easy to see the advertisement for counterfeits as a humorous piece meant to denigrate Congress’s paper money—it was not worth more, the notice implied, than the paper it was printed on. Perhaps, in a tongue-in-cheek way, it was a joking answer to assertions that American officials were beginning to make about British-sponsored counterfeiting; the reference to Q.E.D. certainly suggests that the advertisement might be playing with the idea. The counterfeit advertisement joined other items, ranging from poems about Continentals to reporting on their depreciation, that regularly appeared in New York papers during British occupation.
For American officials, however, the advertisement was the perfect polemical tool. The Continental had depreciated severely—by the end of 1777, the notes had lost 70 percent of their face value. In January 1777, Congress had been forced to pass a resolution maintaining that paper money should pass on par with gold and silver; they also urged states to put in place legal tender laws that would make it possible to prosecute those who did not accept paper money at its full value. As faith in Continentals waned and notices of counterfeits in American newspapers mounted, it became politically convenient to blame the British for the currency’s woes. As the war wore on, British counterfeiting became one of a series of accepted explanations for paper money’s depreciation and a common trope in articles that mocked or criticized the British, including a faux runaway advertisement for General William Howe, which included, in a list of his misdeeds, “being concerned in counterfeiting the currency of this Continent.”
Unpacking and tracing the history of this advertisement for counterfeit notes allows us to see the political significance of counterfeits during the American Revolution. In a loyalist paper, the advertisement served as a humorous commentary on the worthlessness of Continentals; in patriot hands, it became proof of a nefarious British plot to, as one commentator put it “cut the sinews of war.” It’s also a testament to the richness of early American advertisements—a form that could include humor and pointed political critique!
Katherine Smoak is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” recovers the importance of counterfeits to economic and political life in the eighteenth century.
 “From George Washington to John Hancock, 18–19 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0184 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 9, 28 March 1777 – 10 June 1777, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 201–204.
Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777 and reprints in Pennsylvania Gazette, May 14, 1777; Continental Journal, May 15, 1777; Providence Gazette, May 17, 1777; Boston Gazette and Country Journal, May 19, 1777. A version that condenses the story of the counterfeiters’ capture, but still reproduces the full advertisement, appears in Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), May 23, 1777.
 See Thomas Paine’s open letter to Howe in a 1778 pamphlet that remarks that there were “repeated advertisements of counterfeit money for sale,” The Crisis, Vol. 5 (Middleton, NJ, 1839), 135 and a letter printed in multiple newspapers describing the British’s behavior in America which observes they “weekly advertised their money for distribution in a New York paper.”
 Benjamin Irvin, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 92-96.
 Ben Baack, “Forging a Nation State: The Continental Congress and the Financing of the War of American Independence,” Economic History Review, LIV, 4 (2001): 643.