October 8

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 8, 1771).

“Yorkshire STUFFS for Negro [Women’s] Gowns.”

The partnership of Powell, Hopton, and Company announced the sale of “A Cargo of One Hundred and Thirty-three HEALTHY and PRIME NEGROES” recently arrived from Gambia in an advertisement in the October 8, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal.  Elsewhere in the same issue, an anonymous advertiser offered to hire out an enslaved woman as a wet nurse “by the month,” instructing interested parties to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information.  Both the unnamed advertiser and Powell, Hopton, and Company sought to generate revenues by participating in the slave trade.

John Davies also stood to profit from the slave trade, though not from selling or leasing enslaved people.  Instead, he peddled goods to enslavers.  In his advertisement, Davies hawked “SUNDRY MERCHANDIZE” imported from London, calling special attention to “a large ASSORTMENT of Yorkshire STUFFS for Negro [Women’s] Gowns.”  Other merchants and shopkeepers placed extensive advertisements that listed dozens of items available at their stores and warehouses, hoping to entice consumers with the many choices available to them.  For Davies and his prospective customers, however, choice was largely irrelevant.  The enslaved women who would wear garments made of the textiles Davies sold were not consumers; they did not do the shopping or select the cloth according to their own tastes and budgets.  Davies did not need to make the same marketing appeals to the enslavers who purchased his “Yorkshire STUFFS” as other advertisers made to prospective customers.

Davies received his merchandise from London via the Magna Charta, a vessel named for a royal charter understood as protecting individual English freedoms.  The tension between liberty and enslavement contained within his advertisement apparently did not register with Davies as he attempted to earn his livelihood through supplying enslavers who bought his goods and also purchased the human cargo that arrived in Charleston on ships from Africa.  The slave trade had so many tentacles that colonists did not have to buy and sell enslaved people in order to profit from it.

September 22

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

Sep 22 - 9:22:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 22, 1767).

“Yorkshire stuffs, fit for house negroe’s gowns.”

John Davies frequently placed advertisements in Charleston’s newspapers in the 1760s, promoting the “Great variety of sundry merchandize” he imported from England and Ireland. His commercial notices incorporated fairly sophisticated marketing methods. In today’s advertisements, for instance, he offered a discount on Irish linens (“15 per cent. under the common advance”) and “no charge of commissions” because his supply chain eliminated middlemen and buying in credit. To obtain his ware, he “bought of the manufacturers with cash.” Unlike most other advertisers, he specified prices for some of his inventory, including “Yorkshire stuffs … at 8s. 9d. the yard” and blue and white plains at 10s. per yard,” which allowed potential customers to engage in comparison shopping before visiting Davies’s “store in Beadon’s Alley.”

All of these factors made Davies’s advertisements noteworthy, but another element also merits attention for what it reveals about life in eighteenth-century South Carolina. Davies lived and worked in a slave society. In distinguishing between slave societies and societies with slaves, the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative defines slave societies as settlements “where slavery stood at the center of politics, the economy, labor experiences, and social identities. Slaveholders made up the ruling class in these areas and the master-slave relationship shaped all aspects of society and daily life.” (In societies with slaves, on the other hand, “the institution of slavery was relatively peripheral to local economies and white social status.”)

Davies’s advertisement reveals just one of the many ways that slavery shaped commerce and everyday life in colonial South Carolina. Those Yorkshire stuffs that Davies sold at the low price of eight shillings and nine pence per yard were “fit for house negroe’s gowns.” Davies realized that many potential customers owned slaves, some of whom worked in domestic service rather than laboring to raise rice, indigo, or other agricultural commodities. He directed customers to take note of a textile appropriate for clothing enslaved women who worked in the home, a fabric fitting to their station (as opposed to the “negroe cloth” often advertised to clothe most other enslaved men, women, and children) but that also testified to the status of slaveholders who assigned some of their human property to domestic service. Slaveholders needed a fabric that was fine enough, but not too fine, to reflect well on them should visitors glimpse their domestic “servants” at work. He gave that part of the local culture only casual acknowledgment, making no fanfare or otherwise distinguishing that particular appeal from the rest of the advertisement. Instead, the “Yorkshire stuffs, fit for house negroe’s gowns” were sandwiched between descriptions of other textiles.

A nota bene, however, did stand out from the remainder of Davies’s advertisement. In it, he informed readers that “A young Negro Fellow, who is a good Cook, is wanted on hire.” This notice was unrelated to the “Great variety of sundry merchandize” Davies sold at his store, yet he apparently did not believe that it merited a separate advertisement. Instead, he appended it to an advertisement for his business. His own arrangements for domestic labor performed by an enslaved man merged with a commercial notice intended to entice customers to make purchases from him. The institution of slavery was inseparable from commerce and domestic life in Davies’s advertisement.

July 21

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

Jul 21 - 7:21:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (July 21, 1767).

“A great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.”

Like several other merchants and shopkeepers in colonial Charleston, John Davies advertised in more than one of the city’s newspapers. A variation of today’s advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for instance, previously appeared in both that newspaper and the South-Carolina and American General Gazette a month earlier. This version added a nota bene informing potential customers that Davies had augmented his stock with “A very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” On their own, these updates deceptively suggested that consumers could acquire merchandise fresh off a ship that had just arrived in port.

Those who consulted the shipping news, however, discovered a rather different story. No ship under the command of a Captain Gordon had arrived in port during the past week, so the nota bene did not deliver the absolutely “freshest Advices” promised in the newspaper’s masthead. Indeed, the June 30 issue indicated that the “Ship Mary, James Gordon” from London had arrived on June 26, nearly a month before today’s advertisement promoted the “very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” In that issue, Davies’ advertisement appeared immediately to the left of the shipping news. Readers could verify the information communicated in the larger font used for the nota bene with a quick glance. Davies and the compositor had speedily updated the advertisement.

The revised notice appeared in the next three issues, the verity of the nota bene reduced with each passing week. Careful readers of the July 21 issue would have noticed that Captain Gordon and the Mary had been cleared for departure and a return trip to London by the Customs House on July 18. Careful readers would have also recognized Davies’ advertisement from previous issues, realizing that the information in the nota bene needed to be tempered by acknowledging that the notice had been reprinted several times over the past month. Such careful attention to the shipping news likely would not have been necessary for potential customers to approach this advertisement with some skepticism. Readers were accustomed to advertisements being reprinted for weeks and sometimes months. They would have learned to adjust their expectations when advertisers made claims about goods that had “just arrived” or had been “just imported.”

June 21

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

Jun 21 - 6:19:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (June 19, 1767).

“Will be sold 10 per cent. under the common advance.”

John Davies paid attention to quality and, especially, price in his advertisement for imported Irish linens and other textiles in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. He encouraged customers to buy in volume as a means of lowering prices as he targeted retailers who needed “to supply themselves … to sell again.” Although he did not specify specific rates for most of his goods, he did offer some numbers that would have been attractive to potential customers looking to acquire inventory and turn a profit themselves.

For instance, he stated that he “sold 10 per cent. under the common advance.” He assumed that potential customers already had a general sense of the going rates for the various sorts of textiles he sold, enticing them with the savings he offered compared to what they otherwise expected to pay. To sweeten the deal, he also promoted “the advantage of 5 per cent. being allowed in the purchase of them for prompt payment.” In other words, as he stated later in the advertisement, those “who purchase with cash” rather than credit stood to enjoy an additional discount that made his prices even more competitive. Davies implied further discounts for buying in bulk – “still greater allowance that will be made in taking a quantity” – although he did not offer specifics. The size of the subsequent discount may have been tied to the quantity purchased, subject to negotiations between Davies and his customers at the time of sale.

How was Davies able to offer low prices and significant discounts? He had cultivated relationships directly with the manufacturers, sidestepping English merchants who usually supplied American wholesalers and retailers. There had been “no charge of commissions” to other parties to drive up Davies’s prices. He also kept costs down by making his own purchases in cash rather than credit that accumulated interest. He passed his savings on to his customers in Charleston.

February 10

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (February 10, 1767).

“A few light green silk umbrelloes.”

In marketing his wares to potential customers, John Davies made many of the standard appeals that appeared in eighteenth-century newspaper advertising. He specified that his goods had been “Imported … from London” (and even named the vessel that carried them so readers could confirm how recently they had arrived). He offered customers choices, including “a great variety of printed cottons and linens” and “a large assortment of men and women’s neat made shoes and pumps.” He listed some of his goods to whet consumers’ appetites, but also allowed them to use their imaginations about what might be included among the “many other articles” in his shop. He gave assurances about the quality of his merchandise at the beginning and end of his advertisement. He also promised low prices, even mentioning specific prices for particular items as a means of guaranteeing those rates and allowing potential customers to assess the value themselves even before visiting his shop. When he stated that he sold his wares “proportionably cheap,” he likely offered discounts for buying in bulk, especially considering that he stressed that he stocked “a quantity” of several items, including printed linens and handkerchiefs. At a glance, Davies’ advertisement looks like a block of dense text, but on further examination readers discovered that it contained many of the most modern marketing strategies of its time.

In addition, Davies resorted to another sort of appeal not used quite as often in eighteenth-century advertising: an appeal to scarcity. He carried “a quantity” or “a large assortment” of several items, but only “a few light green silk umbrelloes.” This created a different sort of imperative for potential customers to visit his shop. Readers had many opportunities to purchase most of Davies’ wares, but his inventory included only a limited number of fashionable umbrellas. Anyone interested in such an item needed to buy it quickly or risk supplies being sold out. Without being heavy-handed in his approach, Davies created a sense of urgency when it came to obtaining one of the “few” green silk umbrellas he had imported from London.