April 20

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 20 - 4:20:1767 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (April 20, 1767).

“A Large & beautiful assortment of Silks.”

Silk imports were common during the eighteenth century. According to Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, “Many Virginia women favored gowns made of lustring, a crisp, light silk.” This is noteworthy because Jane Eustis ran a shop – and sold an “assortment of Silks” – in Boston and advertised in the Boston Gazette. This shows the far reach of the silk trade in eighteenth-century America. In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen presents the idea of standardization of consumer culture, seen here with the silks.[1]

Some people bought silks as a way to denote social status. In addition, much of the clothing worn in the American colonies was typically not light. In the warmer months this could cause many issues regarding the heat. Baumgarten notes, “One Virginia woman related in her diary that she did not bother to get dressed immediately on a particularly ‘sulterry’ day; she remained ‘up stairs in only shift and petticoat till after Tea.” This is fascinating because of the stark difference compared to modern ideas of modesty and appropriate ways to dress in the heat.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Jane Eustis advertised “Silks, Cap Laces, and a great Variety of other Goods.” Although she did not provide an extensive list of those “other Goods,” her advertisement concluded with a promise that “The Particulars of which will be in our next.” Why was Eustis’s advertisement truncated?

Perhaps Eustis had not had time to compile a list of “The Particulars.” Other advertisers, including William Fisher, indicated that their wares had “just arrived from LONDON” on the same vessel that carried Eustis’s merchandise. Instead of listing the goods, most offered some sort of variation of “A Fresh Assortment of English GOODS.” John Symmes, a goldsmith, did insert a short list, but his was very specialized merchandise of the sort that he might have placed detailed orders or may have otherwise known or anticipated in advance exactly what associates in London had shipped. Shopkeepers who carried general merchandise, like Eustis and Fisher, may not have known all “The Particulars” of what had been dispatched to them by contacts in London until they unpacked the crates and barrels. An initial advertisement for a “great Variety” of goods at least informed prospective customers that they carried new merchandise.

Alternately, Eustis may have submitted a longer advertisement to Edes and Gill, only to have the printers run out of space to print it in its entirety. While possible, that seems less likely given that Eustis’s advertisement appeared on the same page as another that extended more than a column. If Edes and Gill were rationing space, why not abbreviate Frederick William Geyer’s extensive list to free up room for at least some of Eustis’s “Particulars”? Even if the printers did not wish to displace Geyer, a regular advertiser, they could have shortened lengthy list advertisements placed by other shopkeepers. In addition, they also issued a two-page supplement with even more advertising for the week. This also suggests that Eustis had not yet generated the copy for “The Particulars” that were supposed to appear in the next issue.

A week later, no advertisement by Jane Eustis appeared in the Boston-Gazette. Two weeks later, that newspaper ran a new advertisement, though it lacked “The Particulars” that had been promised: “Just Imported in Capt. Skillings, and to be sold by Jane Eustis By Wholesale and Retail, at her Shop the North Side of the Town-House, A great Variety of India and English Goods.” By then Eustis certainly had a chance to compile a list of her new inventory. She may have decided that a shorter advertisement was sufficient for her purposes. She may have determined that a longer advertisement exceeded her budget and decided against it. Whatever the circumstances, her initial advertisement presented a bit of a mystery. It would be fascinating to know more about the factors that influenced Eustis’s decisions about advertising her wares.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 73-104.

May 26

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

May 26 - 5:26:1766 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (May 26).

“The said Eustis has to sell (being a Consignment) a few Setts Pamela.”

A revolution in reading took place during the eighteenth century. Early Americans shifted away from intensive reading of the bible and theological and devotional materials in favor of extensive reading of a variety of different genres, including history, poetry and genre, travel narratives, political philosophy, and even novels.

Critics almost immediately lamented the rise of the novel, claiming that the characters and plots challenged traditional virtues and could corrupt readers. In particular, critics worried about the effect reading novels might have on young women. In today’s advertisement, Jane Eustis offered a copy of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson first published in 1740, and Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, another epistolary novel by Richardson, published eight years after Pamela. Both novels were extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but they were also criticized for what was considered an improper sensuality. The plot of Pamela, for instance, includes an attempted seduction and rape. Although the cover page claimed the novel had been published “In order to cultivate the Principles of VIRTUE and RELIGION in the Minds of the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES,” some critics charged that scenes considered too graphic actually had the opposite effect.

Jane Eustis, a woman operating a business in a commercial world dominated by men, made it clear in her advertisement that although she sold Pamela and Clarissa she did so on consignment. She did not indicate whether she had actually read either book but allowed for sufficient doubt. Customers who wished to purchase and read Pamela and Clarissa may not have cared how familiar Eustis was with their contents, but customers who objected to the novels might wonder about a she-merchant’s interest in those books and chose not to patronize her shop at all. By stating that she sold the books on consignment for another party, Eustis steered a middle course that protected her reputation while allowing her to participate in the marketplace.

Note:  When Eustis announced that she sold “a few Setts Pamela with Cuts” she was not referring to an abridged version with material cut out.  Instead, she meant that images — either woodcuts or engravings — accompanied each volume.