March 3

GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke

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

Connecticut Journal (March 3, 1769).

“OAKUM by the Hundred, or lesser Quantity.”

Oakum is a product made from old rope. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, oakum consisted of “loosely twisted fibres obtained chiefly by untwisting and picking old hemp rope” Workers shredded and separated the fibers of “junk,” old unusable ropes, to create fine, thin fibers. This product, oakum, was a crucial commodity in the shipping industry. It was used as caulking to seal and pack the joints of wooden vessels. Later oakum was used for deck planking for iron and steel ships, in plumbing, and sealing joints in cast iron piping. Today, hemp or jute are used instead.

In this advertisement, Israel Bunnel claims that customers could get his oakum “as Cheap as may be bought in New-York, or Boston.” Oakum was a crucial element for shipbuilding and repairs, making it highly sought after in colonial ports. Bunnel reassured the consumer that his product was just as good and just as cheap as the oakum being sold in Boston and New York, which in 1769 were some of the most important ports in the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Israel Bunnel placed his advertisement for oakum in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy. As Olivia notes, he favorably compared the price for his oakum to what customers could expect to pay in Boston and New York, thus placing himself in direct competition with suppliers in those much larger and busier ports located in the same region as New Haven. In so doing, he adopted a strategy sometimes deployed by shopkeepers in smaller towns: places like Boston and New York were bigger, but that did not necessarily mean that better deals could be found there.

Bunnel’s advertisement addressed more than one aspect of life in a colonial port. In addition to peddling oakum, he inserted a nota bene to announce that he “teaches in the easiest and familiar manner, NAVIGATION as Usual.” Although he did not describe his curriculum, it most likely incorporated celestial navigation aided by the use of various equipment, including sextants, quadrants, and charts. He provided an important service in a seafaring town, one that might produce opportunities for advancement for those who could afford to pay the fees for his instruction, but only if they mastered his lessons. That Bunnel stated that he taught navigation “as Usual” suggests that he had been doing so for some time, long enough that some readers would have been familiar with his reputation as an instructor.

The shipping news appeared on the same page as Bunnel’s advertisement. During the past week the “Sloop Cloe” and the “Sloop Polly” had both “ENTRED in” at the customs house. The “Sloop Charlotte,” the “Sloop Greyhound,” and the “Sloop Diamond” had all been “CLEARED” for departure to the Caribbean. Even if the captains and sailors did not trade with Bunnel while in New Haven, all of them depended on both the goods and services that he provided to the maritime community.