April 1

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

Apr 1 - 3:29:1770 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (March 29, 1770).


The partnership of Smith and Atkinson informed consumers in and around Boston that they stocked “A small Assortment of English Goods, (imported before the late Agreements of the Merchants)” in an advertisement in the March 29, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  On the same day, James McCall took to the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette to announce that he carried an “ASSORTMENT of GOODS” imported in the Sea Venturefrom Bristol “Agreeable to the RESOLUTIONS.”  This marketing strategy was less common in the newspapers published in Charleston than in Boston, but not unknown.

In both cities, purveyors of goods believed that asserting that they acquired their goods according to the terms of nonimportation agreements adopted in protest of import duties Parliament imposed on paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea would incite demand.  They offered colonists the opportunity to continue participating in the consumer revolution without violating the political principles that inspired the “RESOLUTIONS” or the “late Agreements.”  Yet their newspaper notices did more than reassure prospective customers.  McCall intended to safeguard his own reputation, as did Smith and Atkinson.  They wanted all readers and, by extension, the entire community to know that they abided by the nonimportation agreements.  Making such declarations not only amounted to good business sense but also aided in maintaining their status and relationships.

In Charleston and Boston, both advertisers and prospective customers spoke a common language of consumption that was inflected with politics.  T.H. Breen makes in this argument in The Marketplace of Revolution:  How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence.  At the nexus of consumer culture and print culture, newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services played an important role in developing and propagating the language of consumption.  This yielded what Benedict Anderson termed imagined communities – communities of readers and communities of consumers – that made colonists in faraway places like Boston and Charleston feel as though they shared a common identity.

March 15

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

Mar 15 - 3:15:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (March 15, 1768).

“A fresh assortment of GARDEN SEEDS, pease, beans and flower-roots.”

James McCall stocked and sold a variety of imported merchandise “at his store in Tradd-street” in Charleston. Like many other merchants and shopkeepers, he attempted to incited demand for his wares by placing an advertisement that listed many of them in a dense paragraph, everything from “neat Wilton carpeting” to “shot of all sizes” to “coffee and chocolate.” His inventory included groceries, clothing, housewares, and much more.

For the most part McCall did not make special efforts to promote any particular items, with one exception. Deploying typography strategically, he did draw attention to his “fresh assortment of GARDEN SEEDS, pease, beans and flower-roots.” Very few words in his advertisement appeared in all capital letters; most of those that did were names: his own name that served as a headline, the name of the ship and captain that transported the goods, and the name of the English port of departure. In the main body of the advertisement, the list of items for sale, the first word appeared in all capitals, as was the convention for all advertisements in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Otherwise, the words “GARDEN SEEDS” about midway through the list of goods were the only words in all capitals in the body of McCall’s notice.

Although advertisers usually wrote copy and left it to compositors to determine the graphic design elements of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, deviations from the standard appearance of notices within particular publications suggest that advertisers could and did sometimes request specific typography for certain aspects of their notices. Such appears to have been the case for McCall’s advertisement since the compositor would have had little reason to randomly set “GARDEN SEEDS” in all capitals. On the other hand, McCall had particular interest in drawing attention to such seasonal merchandise. In other advertisements, he developed a habit for singling out a specific item to promote to prospective customers. For instance, the previous August he included “CHOICE DOUBLE GLOSTER CHEESE” in a list-style advertisement that did not feature any other items in all capitals.

McCall could have chosen to highlight these items by listing them first or writing a separate nota bene to append to his advertisements. Instead, he opted to experiment with variations in typography to accentuate his “GARDEN SEEDS” and “CHOICE DOUBLE GLOSTER CHEESE.” Although rudimentary compared to modern understandings of graphic design, his choices indicate some level of understanding that the appearance on the page could be just as effective as the copy when it came to delivering advertising content to consumers.

August 25

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

Aug 25 - 8:25:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (August 25, 1767).

“Coarse shoes for Negroes.”

From fabrics to foodstuffs to decorative housewares, James McCall sold an array of merchandise at “Messrs. LLOYD and NEYLE’s store in Broad-street” in Charleston. He carried clothing items intended for a variety of customers. For instance, his advertisement distinguished between “men’s buck gloves” and “women’s white unglazed kid gloves and mitts, with flowered backs.”

McCall made even greater distinctions among his assortment of shoes for all sorts of colonists: “women and girls leather and black callimanco shoes and pumps, men and boys shoes and pumps, coarse shoes for Negroes, a great choice of childrens black leather and Morocco shoes and pumps.” This short catalog of shoes and their intended wearers underscores that not everyone who eventually wore clothing sold by McCall qualified as customers in their own right. The slaves who donned the “coarse shoes for Negroes” never visited the store or made their own selections. They put consumer goods to use, but they did not participate in obtaining them. They did not engage in the processes of imagining alternatives and making choices about which shoes and other clothing items to acquire and wear.

Advertisements for consumer goods targeted broad swaths of the colonial population, but they also excluded or did not envision direct participation by enslaved men, women, and children. In addition to McCall’s “coarse shoes for Negroes,” advertisers in South Carolina and other colonies with significant slave populations frequently announced that they sold “NEGRO CLOTH” (as did Atkins and Weston in the same issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal that carried McCall’s advertisement). Slaveholders purchased negro cloth, a coarse material, to outfit their slaves, even as they selected among almost innumerable textiles of higher quality for their own apparel.

In publishing an extensive list of shoes he stocked, McCall marketed fashion to prospective customers, but not when it came to “coarse shoes for Negroes.” In that case, McCall merely advertised provisions. The “coarse shoes for Negroes” would have more appropriately appeared in other parts of the advertisement, along with “flour in barrels” or the half dozen different kinds of nails. “Negroes” certainly used some of the clothing items McCall imported and sold, but they did not qualify as customers. Their participation in the consumer culture was circumscribed by their status as slaves.