August 15

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

Aug 15 - 8:13:1770 New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (August 13, 1770).

“Coopers Bung borers, adzes, howells, compasses, crozes, bitts and rivets.”

In the 1770s, when merchants and shopkeepers enumerated the “general assortment” of goods they offered for sale, their advertisements usually followed one of two formats.  Most listed their merchandise in a dense paragraph of text that extended anywhere from a few lines to half a column or more.  As an alternative, others created more white space and made their advertisements easier to read by including only one item per line or organizing their wares into columns.  Adopting such methods meant that advertisers could name fewer items in the same amount of space as their competitors who chose paragraphs of text with no white space.

Both sorts of advertisements regularly appeared in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, but occasionally advertisers (perhaps in consultation with printers and compositors) added variations and innovations.  Such was the case with Thomas Hazard’s advertisement for ironmongery and cutlery in the August 13, 1770, edition.  Hazard began with a dense paragraph that included “H and H-L plain and rais’d joint hinges,” “brass and iron candlesticks,” and “sword blades.”  In addition, he divided a portion of his advertisement into two columns.  Within those columns, he resorted to short paragraphs of text rather than listing only one or two items per line, but those paragraphs were brief and likely easier for eighteenth-century consumers to navigate than the dense paragraph of text that constituted the bulk of the advertisement.  Furthermore, Hazard inserted headers for each of those shorter paragraphs:  “Carpenters,” “Shoemakers,” “Coopers,” “Barbers,” “Watchmakers,” and “Silversmiths and Jewellers.”  Each paragraph listed tools used in a particular trade.  In this manner, Hazard targeted specific consumers and aided artisans in finding the items of greatest interest to them.

Prior to the American Revolution, merchants and shopkeepers published undifferentiated lists of goods in their advertisements, but occasionally some attempted to impose more order and make their notices easier for prospective customers to navigate.  Thomas Hazard did so by grouping together tools used by various sorts of artisans, setting them apart in columns, and using headers to draw attention to them.  Carpenters or watchmakers who might have overlooked items when skimming dense paragraphs of text instead had a beacon that called their attention to the tolls of their trades.

August 18

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

Aug 18 - 8:18:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (August 18, 1768).

“Carpenters, joiners, sadlers and others, may expect they will be sold on the lowest terms.”

In the late 1760s James Eddy operated a hardware store on Second Street in Philadelphia. His lengthy advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette promised a “large and neat assortment of IRONMONGERY.” To demonstrate that was the case, he listed dozens of items available at his shop, everything from nails to “dovetail and key-hole saws” to “files of various sorts and sizes” to “brass H hinges for book cases” to “sundry kinds of brass and iron wire.”

Although everyday consumers would have purchased many of his wares, Eddy understood that artisans comprised a customer base particularly important to his business. As a result, he catered to them by drawing attention to specific tools, including “taylors and womens shears,” “A large assortment of chapes for silver smiths,” “carpenters hammers,” “A large and very neat assortment of clock and watchmakers tools,” and “sundry other tools, suitable for carpenters, ship carpenters, joiners, &c.” Eddy supplied artisans with the tools they needed to practice their trades. That endeavor likely accounted for a substantial portion of his business.

Even if it did not, Eddy’s advertisement suggests that he envisioned a special relationship with artisans as a means of generating revenues. He appended a nota bene that made general appeals about price and quality for all potential customers but then targeted artisans for their prospective patronage. “Carpenters, joiners, sadlers and others,” Eddy proclaimed, “may expect they will be sold on the lowest terms.”

In the eighteenth century advertisers only occasionally addressed their notices to members of particular occupations. Eddy apparently sensed an opportunity to establish a sense of community with artisans who did not merely desire his wares but actually needed them to pursue their own livelihoods. He cultivated that relationship by stocking a wide assortment of tools and underscoring that those who used them could depend on outfitting their own workshops with quality tools sold at low prices. His particular concern for the artisans of Philadelphia may have won him some customers who appreciated that he was sensitive to the costs of the tools they needed to operate their own businesses, a part of his business model that distinguished him from many other shopkeepers in the city.

March 9

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

Mar 9 - 3:7:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 7, 1766).

“Very neat double gilt pinch back buckles, white and yellow mettle ditto.”

Sometimes it can be a bit disorienting to read eighteenth-century advertisements. Some of the goods on offer seem unfamiliar to twenty-first-century readers (as is certainly the case in today’s advertisement), but the frequent use of the word “ditto” can also cause confusion.

  • “steel snuffers, common ditto”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen ditto”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case ditto”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring ditto”
  • “mens sturrips, womens ditto”

In the eighteenth century, “ditto” had the same meaning as it does today: the aforesaid, the above, the same. Accordingly, the examples above should be read as:

  • “steel snuffers, common snuffers”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen fire shovels and tongs”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case locks and brasses”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring locks”
  • “mens sturrips, womens sturrips”

Eighteenth-century readers would have made the transition easily, but (if students in any early American course I have ever taught are representative of modern Americans) today’s readers do not speak the language of the eighteenth century, nor do they recognize all of its conventions for writing. This sometimes leads to confusion about what advertisements, as well as manuscripts and other kinds of printed documents, meant to communicate.

“Ditto.” Is that just a quaint way that Americans expressed themselves in the eighteenth century? It actually had a very practical use. Imagine Noah Parker writing out this advertisement before dropping it off at the printing office. Paper may have been in short supply, but his time and efforts were both precious to him as well. When writing with a quill pen, inserting “ditto” to replace longer words and phrases reduced the amount of writing that needed to be done.

It’s impossible to know how Parker originally composed this particular advertisement, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had used “do.” (itself an abbreviation for “ditto”) repeatedly, reducing the amount of writing he had to do with a quill pen significantly. (I’ve looked through enough account books to know that “do.” appeared repeatedly, sometimes as the most frequent word on a page.) The printer may have expanded “do.” to “ditto” at various places in the advertisement, though there are several examples of the much less common “dit.” standing in for “ditto.” It’s likely that both the printer and the advertiser made decisions about how to save time and space in the process of creating this advertisement.

BONUS: “&c. &c. &c.”

The advertisement ends with what appears to be a nonsensical collection of letters and symbols, at least to twenty-first-century readers. In the eighteenth century, however, writers and printers also had methods for abbreviating “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” (and others, and so forth, and so on). Instead of “etc.” they used the more economical “&c.” (I’m not certain when the transition from “&c.” to “etc.” took place, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the relative ease of typing the latter compared to the former on a QWERTY keyboard.)