April 9

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (April 7, 1769).

Garden Seeds.”

In this advertisement from the New-Hampshire Gazette, shopkeeper John Adams promoted garden seeds imported from London to potential customers. Customers throughout the colonies, including Virginia, purchased seeds from shopkeepers. According to Wesley Greene, a garden historian in the Landscape Department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “All of the stores in eighteenth-century Williamsburg offered vegetable seeds for sale, so there were certainly a number of fine gardens in town that were nost likely vegetable gardens.” Greene states that vegetables in those gardens were considered “luxuries rather than staples.” Vegetables were expensive, took a long time to grow, could only be grown in season, and did not last long. Colonists in Williamsburg who did have vegetable gardens showed off their higher status to their fellow colonists. As Greene explains, “In the eighteenth century, a gentleman made a statement about who he was by how his table was set. Vegetables such as Cauliflowers and Articholes conveyed an important merssage that guest were dining at the home of a person of taste and consequence.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In the spring of 1769, shopkeeper John Adams of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, aimed to supplement the livelihood he earned by selling “a general Assortment of English GOODS” at his shop on Queen Street by also peddling “a fresh Assortment of Garden-Seeds” imported from London. He likely was not the only purveyor of “Garden Seeds” in town, but he was the only local entrepreneur who devoted a lengthy advertisement to listing dozens of varieties of seeds.

Adams acknowledged that he had competition, especially from more than half a dozen women who advertised seeds for sale in the several newspapers published in Boston and distributed throughout the region. Four days before his advertisement ran in the New-Hampshire Gazette, Elizabeth Clark, Abigail Davidson, Lydia Dyar, Elizabeth Greenleaf, Susanna Renken, and Rebeckah Walker each published similar advertisements in the Boston-Gazette. That same day, Sarah Winsor placed an advertisement in Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette, as did Greenleaf and Renken. In an attempt to capture as much of the market as possible, the appropriately named Greenleaf also advertised in the Boston Evening-Post on that day. For some reason, Richard Draper circulated the Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Gazette a day later than usual that week. On April 7, the same day that Adams’s advertisement ran in the New-Hampshire Gazette, Anna Johnson and Bethiah Oliver added their voices to the chorus of seed sellers, accompanied by Clark and Greenleaf, with list of seeds in Draper’s newspapers.

As these lists of advertisers demonstrate, prospective customers interested in purchasing garden seeds had many options … and Adams knew it. To prevent competitors in Boston from infringing on his share of the market in Portsmouth and its environs, Adams proclaimed that he sold his seeds “at the same Rate … as those sold in Boston” even before he listed the many varieties on offer. In so doing, he cautioned local consumers that they did not need to send away for their garden seeds. Instead, he offered them the convenience of visiting his shop and enjoying the same prices they would encounter in Boston, saving time and hassle in the process.

December 18

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

Dec 18 - 12:18:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (December 18, 1767).

“The above Advertisement coming late and being long must omit the Particulars till next Week.”

John Adams placed an advertisement in the December 18, 1767, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette to inform readers that he sold “Philadelphia Flour and Bar Iron” and “a general Assortment of English Goods” at his shop on Queen Street in Portsmouth. An editorial note accompanied Adams’s notice: “The above Advertisement coming late and being long must omit the Particulars till next Week.” The shopkeeper’s much lengthier advertisement did appear in the next issue, but until then readers had to imagine what it might contain. Although they would not have been able to name all the “Particulars,” colonial consumers were so steeped in the print culture of marketing via newspaper advertisements that most would have accurately predicted that the complete notice included a lengthy list of merchandise that presented a multitude of choices. Adams did not benefit from sharing that list with potential customers in the December 18 issue, but when it did appear it concluded with a general description of “a variety of other Articles.” Even when allocated space for the entire advertisement, Adams chose to publish a partial list of his inventory and prompted consumers to imagine what other treasures they might discover if they visited his shop. The editorial note explaining that the advertisement had been abbreviated achieved the same purpose.

That note had at least three audiences. The first consisted of residents of Portsmouth who could easily visit Adams’s shop as part of their usual routines at some point in the coming week. The entire advertisement notified them that Adams carried an array of goods – so many that they could not all be listed in the current edition – that he sold “cheap for Cash.” Readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette who resided in Portsmouth’s hinterland comprised the second audience. They might visit town only occasionally, limiting their access to any of the shops there. The editorial note alerted them that Adams would soon publish more “Particulars” about his inventory, information that they could eventually take into account when planning their excursions into Portsmouth or sending their orders to the shopkeeper. Adams himself was the third audience for the editorial note. It may not have been apparent at the time he submitted his advertisement that it would not appear in its entirety. Even if Adams had been aware in advance, the note provided an acknowledgment and assurances that the printers would allocate sufficient space for his advertisement the following week. It simultaneously informed readers that the shopkeeper had intended to share much more with them. While not the copy Adams intended to publish, the editorial note served to incite interest in his merchandise and anticipation for the complete advertisement.

February 20

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

feb-20-2201767-new-hampshire-gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (February 20, 1767).

“Choice Indigo.”

I chose this advertisement because I didn’t know what indigo was or how it was used. After some research, I learned that it is a plant used in making blue dyes.

According to James Bitler, “plants of the genus Indigofera, known as indigo, provided a stronger, richer blue and replaced woad blue in Western Europe.” As a result, American colonists learned to cultivate a commodity considered superior to what was produced in Europe.

South Carolina and Georgia became major exporters of indigo in the mid eighteenth century. In 1744, a woman who grew up in Charleston, Eliza Lucas (who became Eliza Lewis Pinckney that same year), shipped six pounds of indigo to Great Britain, introducing the use of indigo from South Carolina to the country. As a result, the indigo business expanded in both South Carolina and Georgia. Bitler notes that exports expanded from Lucas’ six pounds in 1744 to five thousand pounds in 1745. Once the British government became aware of the profit the indigo business had to offer, they placed a bounty on indigo to encourage more production. As a result, South Carolina and Georgia greatly increased their indigo exports, greatly increasing their profit.

I found this advertisement interesting because I did not realize the importance of indigo as an export during the colonial and revolutionary periods. I was surprised to learn that the exportation of indigo was a major business in South Carolina and Georgia.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

John Adams’ stark advertisement for “Choice Indigo, TO BE SOLD … At his Shop at the Sign of the State House” belies the role that a female entrepreneur played in turning indigo into a staple crop in South Carolina and Georgia. Historians of consumer culture have long noted that advertisements for tobacco, rum, and, especially, sugar disguise the means of production, although colonists certainly realized that these commodities they desired and enjoyed so much were inextricably linked to the unfree labor of slaves on distant plantations. Advertisements for indigo conceal both the role of slaves in its production and the contributions of a young woman, Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas Pinckney, in transforming indigo into a viable and profitable colonial export.

Born in Antiqua in the British West Indies in 1722, Lucas was raised on one of her family’s sugarcane plantations, though she also attended a boarding school in London for a portion of her youth. In 1738, Colonel Lucas moved his family to South Carolina, though he was unable to join them at that time. At the age of sixteen, she oversaw Wappoo Plantation in her father’s absence. She assumed the role of head of household and overseer of the family’s plantation when her mother died shortly after arriving in South Carolina.

Lucas’ letters indicate that she especially enjoyed studying botany when in London, making it no surprise that she experimented with growing ginger, cotton, and alfalfa before turning to indigo. In the process of cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant, she incorporated the knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans who had previous experience growing the crop in the West Indies and Africa.

As Shannon has noted above, the quantity of indigo production and exports exploded in South Carolina and Georgia after Lucas’ successful efforts in 1744 and her willingness to share her seeds and methods with other planters. As far as staple crops went, indigo was second only to rice in South Carolina. It became a major part of the colonial economy, enriching many planters. In the period before the American Revolution, indigo accounted for one-third of the total value of South Carolina’s exports.

John Adams’ advertisement does not even hint at the role Eliza Lucas Pinckney played in shaping the colonial economy or the reverberations her work throughout transatlantic networks of trade. With a little bit of effort, however, economic history and women’s history merge to create a richer narrative of American history.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s letters and other papers have been digitized. For a trial subscription, visit The Digital Editions of Eliza Lucas Pinckney & Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1739-1830.