July 19

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

Jul 19 - 7:19:1770 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (July 19, 1770).

“Ah—Liberty!  …. An empty sound alone remains of thee.”

John Mason, an upholsterer, did not merely seek to sell paper hangings (or wallpaper) and bedding materials when he placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal in the summer of 1770.  His entire advertisement was a short sermon about the current political crisis and the fate of the nonimportation agreement adopted by the merchants of Philadelphia in response to the duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts.  All of those duties had been recently repealed, with the exception of the duty on tea, prompting merchants in New York to bring an end to their nonimportation agreement and begin trading with English merchants once again.  Residents of other cities and towns debated whether they would continue their own boycotts.  The nonimportation agreement in Philadelphia was on the verge of collapse.  It came to an end on September 20.

Mason apparently did not agree with the direction he saw the merchants and traders in his city heading.  He used his advertisement to encourage the continuation of the nonimportation agreement as well as condemn the merchants in New York for so hastily resuming trade as soon as they heard about the repeal of most of the duties.  The nonimportation agreements were intended to stay in effect until Parliament repealed all the duties, yet the duties on tea remained.

Mason began his advertisement with a play on words, stating that he “STILL prays for liberty to inform the public, that he would be glad to dispose of his property.”  He implied that all liberty was at stake, not just his ability to hawk goods in the marketplace.  He deployed the same turn of phrase in another advertisement that doubled as a political lecture a year earlier.  In his new epistle, he informed prospective customers that he sold papers hangings “not lately imported,” making clear that he continued to abide by the nonimportation agreement, as well as variety of bedding materials that he presumably made in his upholstery shop.  “The utility of these beds,” he proclaimed, “is not duly attended to, as they say, by sleeping on them.”  If the purpose of beds was not for sleeping then what was it?  Mason believed his bedding materials served a more important purpose as symbols of American liberty.  Consumers should purchase them to demonstrate their own commitment to the cause, especially during “this crisis, when our Liberty is tottering, like our Neighbour’s Resolutions*.”  Just in case readers missed his meaning, an asterisk confirmed that he critiqued recent actions in “*NEW YORK.:”

To underscore his point, he inserted a short poem for the edification of both merchants and consumers in Philadelphia:

Ah—Liberty!  How loved, how valued once, avail thee not
To whom retail’d, or by whom begot,
An empty sound alone remains of theee,
And its all thy one pretended Votaries‡ shall be—

Mason contended that liberty had been valued for a time, but all that remained of it was an “empty sound” because its “pretended Votaries,” the merchants in New York, prematurely abandoned the cause by withdrawing from the nonimportation agreement before all the duties had been repealed.  He inserted two more lines of commentary about those “pretended Votaries‡.”  Mason accused them of a “sad blunder, never to be mended” and accused them of causing the entire enterprise to fail.  “This one bad step, the contest ended,” he lamented.  Merchants in New York and other cities saw the repeal of most of the duties on imported goods as a victory.  They believed their nonimportation agreement had served its purpose (or at least well enough to return to business and resume trading).  Mason disagreed.  Until Parliament repealed the duties on tea, bringing an end to the boycotts was nothing more than capitulation.  Parliament had not met the terms that stated the nonimportation agreements would remain in effect until all the duties were repealed.  Mason took a harder line than many other colonists, using a newspaper advertisement to express his views to the general public.

August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:7:1769 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 7, 1769).

“JOHN MASON, Upholsterer, PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customers that he has removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house.”

As the imperial crisis intensified in the late 1760s, newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services increasingly incorporated political messages intended to sway prospective customers. Many such advertisements underscored the benefits of encouraging “domestic manufactures” to achieve greater self-sufficiency and the virtues of purchasing those locally produced goods. Those advertisements often connected their “Buy American” appeals to faithful adherence to nonimportation agreements adopted to resist Parliament’s attempts to enact new taxes, first via the Stamp Act and later through imposing duties on certain imported goods via the Townshend Acts.

Such advertisements became a genre that deployed similar language and took similar forms. In his attempt to sell mattresses and market his services as an upholsterer, John Mason took an even bolder approach. Like other purveyors of goods and services, he turned to the public prints to inform prospective customers when he moved locations. The language he used, however, had distinct political overtones that certainly resonated with debates taking place in newspapers as well as in taverns, coffeehouses, and the public square. Mason trumpeted that he “PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customer that he removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house … where he carries on the Upholstery Business.” The word “PRAYS” appeared in capitals because it was the first word in the body of the advertisement. “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY,” however, apparently appeared in capitals because Mason specified that they needed appropriate emphasis. The upholsterer invoked two of the most important concepts animating resistance to Parliament.

Readers could hardly have missed the point when they considered “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” in combination with the nota bene that Mason appended to his advertisement. “No WONDER that Liberty is the Common Cry,” Mason lectured, “for if it was not the inanimate creation would cry out against us, for the very flowers, they, when deprived of their Liberty, Choose Death Rather, than be Confined in the softest bosom.—Methinks a Moment’s Reflections would Convince those that would Deprive us of our Liberty and property that they are Doing WRONG – for if our Fathers have No Right to Deprive us of our Liberty and property after Twenty-one Years, Certainly out Mother* can have No Right after we have enjoyed it near an Hundred Years. *Mother Country.” In this sermon on liberty, Mason looked to the history of the colonies for guidance and precedents. Parliament could not suddenly impose regulations the colonies after more than a century of allowing them to govern themselves through their own colonial assemblies. Furthermore, the stark choice between liberty and death so was evident that it could be witnessed even in the natural world, as Mason attested in his example of flowers that dies when held too closely, even in the most loving embrace.

At a time when many purveyors of consumer goods and services crafted advertisements that either implicitly or softly invoked politics to influence prospective customers, Mason made a full-throated declaration of his political sentiments. Inserting this editorial into his advertisement allowed him to demonstrate his politics to customers. In addition to adding his voice to the discourse unfolding in the public prints, Mason also intended to encourage customers to support his business because they agreed with his politics and admired his bold stance.

March 26

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

Mar 26 - 3:26:1768 New-York Journal Supplement
Supplement to the New-York Journal (March 26, 1768).

“TO BE SOLD, A Likely young Negro Girl.”

John Holt published the New-York Journal on Thursdays in 1768. According to schedule, he distributed a standard four-page issue on Thursday, March 24. A two-page supplement filled mostly with news and a limited number of advertisements accompanied that issue. Two days later, Holt distributed an additional two-page supplement on Saturday, March 26. He explained that it contained “Articles left out of last for Want of Room,” apparently items that either could not wait for inclusion the following week or that would crowd out more recent news if held that long. The March 26 supplement consisted almost entirely of news items. One advertisement appeared at the bottom of the final column on the second page.

That advertisement offered a “Likely young Negro Girl about 13 Years of Age” for sale. It stood in stark juxtaposition to the remainder of the content of the supplement. Holt devoted four of the six columns to news from Boston, including several editorial pieces reprinted from the Boston-Gazette. One reprinted letter, signed “A TRUE PATRIOT,” warned that the colonists “soon will find themselves in chains” if they did not “support their own RIGHTS, and the Liberty of the PRESS” in the face of abuses by Parliament. Another correspondent, “POPULUS,” underscored that there was “nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as FREE PRESS.” The press played such an important role that “it is ever watched by those who are forming plans for the destruction of the people’s liberties, with an envious and malignant eye.”

In addition to these editorials, Holt inserted a circular letter “written by the hon. the House of Representatives” in Massachusetts “in the last Session of the General Assembly and sent to the respective Assemblies on the Continent.” In it, that body expressed “their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the parliament; that the acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements on their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those acts, grant their property without their consent.” In other words, colonists in Massachusetts objected to taxation without representation. Holt amplified their sentiments by reprinting their letter for readers in New York and its hinterlands.

All of this discussion of freedom of the press and theories of constitutional liberty took place alongside an advertisement for a “young Negro Girl.” The revenues generated from that advertisement contributed to the dissemination of the arguments voiced by “A TRUE PATRIOT,” “POPULUS,” and the assembly of the “Province of MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.” As white colonists fretted about their liberties, they also perpetuated a system that enslaved a “young Negro Girl” and countless others, holding their bodies in bondage even as they lamented potential challenges to their own speech. Resistance led to revolution as the imperial crisis intensified over the course of a decade, but many colonists were inconsistent in their conceptions of liberty and applying them to all who resided in the colonies. Even as they challenged Parliament to recognize their “natural constitutional right” colonists continued to purchase and peddle slaves from New England to George. The evidence for each appeared side-by-side in the pages of their newspapers.