February 27

GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour

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

Boston Chronicle (February 27, 1769).

“ABOUT TWENTY PIECES of fine IRISH LINEN, just imported in fine Order.”

This advertisement offers insight into sought-after items in colonial America, such as linens, sheeting, and other types of cloth. John Gerrish promoted textiles, many of which had symbolic importance associated with status. Networks of importing and selling textiles in colonial America added to the material culture that expanded as part of the consumer revolution. The rise of consumer society brought about universal participation by nearly all colonists, to one extent or another. Drawing on a “language of goods,” colonists could assess others based on their clothing and other possessions. Assessing social meaning focused on whether the apparel matched their character and status, especially as the importation and circulation of textiles increased and prices went down.

According to N.B. Harte in “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” even though the “production of linen was the most widespread industrial activity in America during the colonial period … large amounts of linen were imported from across the Atlantic.” As Harte mentions, colonists produced their own linen yet at the same time remained dependent on imports from the British Isles. The linen industry suggested the potential for a break from Britain, as Americans made some their own consumer goods.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Chloe concludes with a tantalizing possibility. Drawing on discussions about economic resistance to the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and other abuses by Parliament from our Revolutionary America class, she invokes plans envisioned by colonists who wanted to establish greater commercial independence from England even if they were not yet prepared to declare political independence. In addition to new taxes and new regulations imposed by Parliament, colonists lamented an imbalance of trade with England in the late 1760s, giving them another reason to promote both production and consumption of local goods.

Yet as the advertisement Chloe selected demonstrates, colonists imported large quantities of textiles. “IRISH LINEN” was one of several sorts of fabrics up for bids at John Gerrish’s “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE” in Boston. The auctioneer also listed “Cotton Checks,” “Striped Holland,” “Kersies,” “Serges,” and other kinds of imported cloth readily recognized by colonial consumers. Those who advocated for production and consumption of “domestic manufactures” thus had to overcome at least two obstacles. On the production side, they needed to expand the capacity for producing textiles. After all, colonists imported so many linens and other fabrics because they did not produce sufficient quantities themselves. On the consumption side, they needed to shift tastes away from some of the finer fabrics that denoted wealth and status. Affixing a political meaning to homespun cloth was part of that process.

Even if colonists could accomplish the latter – and they had some success in doing so, at least for short periods during particularly tense relations with Parliament – the former remained idealistic rather than practical. Editorials promoting domestic manufactures ran in newspapers throughout the colonies. Many artisans, shopkeepers, and other advertisers responded by incorporating such messages into their notices aimed at prospective customers. Yet even when consumers were willing to consider local alternatives to imported textiles, the colonies did not have the capacity to produce sufficient quantities to meet their needs. Rhetoric and reality deviated, but that did not necessarily diminish the power of the rhetoric as colonists considered their own consumer choices and assessed other for they choices they made.

 

April 13

GUEST CURATOR:  Zachary Karpowich

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

Apr 13 - 4:13:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (April 13, 1768).

“A NEAT ASSORTMENT of IRISH LINEN CLOTH, of a bright colour and good fabric.”

During the colonial era linen was an essential resource to many of the colonists who worked in the mercantile market. These goods were responsible for a lot of commerce along trading networks that involved many farmers and merchants, according to Michelle M. Mormul. Linen was often imported from Europe due to the local production never being able to keep up with the amount demanded in the colonial market. Raw materials could be hard to come by and the colonies were not yet properly equipped to make the linen themselves.

Irish linen saw an increase in popularity due to boycotts against British goods. An entry on “Linen” in The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia indicates that this was due to linen traders taking an active stand against British policies. This advertisement by Joseph Wright may have tried to capitalize on those feelings. Wright could be one of the many people looking at the resistance efforts in the colonies as a chance for profit. The boycott from colonial merchants ended in the early 1770s, not long after this advertisement was published.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Zach presents an interesting interpretation of this advertisement for imported “IRISH LINEN CLOTH.” Joseph Wright did not explicitly make a political argument in his advertisement, but he may not have considered doing so necessary.  He might have assumed that his prospective customers were already aware of the distinctions between Irish linens and English fabrics as well as the political ramifications of consuming textiles imported from Britain.  The Georgia Gazette, which carried his advertisement, certainly made the case. In the same issue, James Johnston reprinted news from England that originally appeared in newspapers from Boston, including commentary on the effects of colonists boycotting English textiles.  “There was no mention made of American affairs in the House of Commons from the 14th to the 27th of January; but the towns of Leeds, Wakefield, and others, where coarse woolens are manufactured, have petitioned the Parliament for relief, on account of the great decline of the demand for their manufactures.”  Such coverage implied that colonial resistance to the Townshend Act via consumer activism was responsible for the “great decline” experienced by manufacturers in England.

Other items in the same issue of the Georgia Gazette contributed to encouraging a spirit of resistance among readers, especially the editorial that comprised half of that edition.  Johnston devoted the first two pages (with the exception of the masthead) to “LETTER X” of John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.” Throughout the colonies printers had been publishing this series of twelve letters warning against abuses by Parliament in their own newspapers, reprinting from one to another just as Johnston reprinted news from England that originally appeared in a newspaper printed in Boston.  Readers who perused the April 13 edition of the Georgia Gazette from start to finish encountered “LETTER X” on the first two pages, a column of advertising and a column of news reprinted from other newspapers on the third page, and two columns of advertising on the final page.  By the time they read Wright’s advertisement many would have been contemplating politics, especially the politics of consumption, perhaps causing them to be more inclined to purchase the “IRISH LINEN CLOTH, of a bright colour and good fabric” that the merchant peddled.

November 4

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

nov-4-1141766-south-carolina-gazette-and-country-journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (November 4, 1766).

“Irish and Drogheda linen.”

In this advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Thomas Dennison sold various items, such as “Fine white salt, coals, cheese, potatoes, [and] crates of yellow ware.” Nonetheless one item specifically drew my eye: “Irish and Drogheda linen.” I had never before heard of Drogheda and Iam also Irish so I was immediately drawn to it.  I learned that Drogheda is one of Ireland’s oldest towns.

The commercial relationship between Ireland and colonial America was beneficial and profitable. Thomas M. Truxes notes that it was expensive to produce linen in the colonies while in Ireland it was far cheaper. This made Irish linen that much more desirable because it was “attractively priced” and “became progressively less expensive.”[1] This was also ideal for England who wanted to discourage “industrial development in the colonies.” Plus the English merchants earned money when they were the middlemen who imported Irish linens into the colonies, but “Irish merchants and factors played key roles in the distribution system” too.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Price, Hest, and Head listed a variety of goods in their advertisement. From among them, Ceara chose to investigate a commodity that appeared repeatedly in eighteenth-century advertisements: Irish linens. Ceara consulted Thomas M. Truxes’s Irish-American Trade, 1660-1783 to identify some of the reasons why Irish linen was transported to the colonies. As Ceara and I worked together on researching and revising her analysis of this advertisement, I was struck by the data Truxes provided to demonstrate the magnitude of the Irish linen trade.

Truxes devotes an entire chapter to Irish linen, which he begins by stating that “British America was Ireland’s second largest market for linen and its most important vent for coarse, low-priced cloths.”[2] For the purposes of placing today’s advertisement in context, let’s have a look at some of the numbers for the middle of the eighteenth century. “With the English bounty of 1743,” Truxes explains, the linen export to America experienced a surge in growth of unprecedented proportions, reaching a level of 4.4 million yards per annum by the early 1770s.” Furthermore, between 1750 and 1770, the quantity of Irish linen exports to the American colonies quadrupled. During the same period, the colonies became an increasingly important market for Irish linens: the share of Ireland’s total linen export that went to British America doubled.

Advertisements for textiles were incredibly common in eighteenth-century newspapers. Many of those advertisements relied on lengthy lists of fabrics of varying qualities, colors, and patterns. Amid that diversity, any list of imported textiles almost invariably included Irish linens. Those advertisements offer impressionistic evidence that Irish linens were ubiquitous in the colonial American marketplace, though they rarely specified how many yards of Irish linen merchants imported or shopkeepers stocked. Truxes clarifies the volume of Irish linens that flowed to America in the decades before the Revolution, confirming the significance of this commodity.

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[1] All quotations in this entry: Thomas M. Truxes, Irish-American Trade, 1660-1784 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 170.

[2] As above, all quotations and statistics in this entry: Thomas M. Truxes, Irish-American Trade, 1660-1784 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 170.