February 27

GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour

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

Boston Chronicle (February 27, 1769).

“ABOUT TWENTY PIECES of fine IRISH LINEN, just imported in fine Order.”

This advertisement offers insight into sought-after items in colonial America, such as linens, sheeting, and other types of cloth. John Gerrish promoted textiles, many of which had symbolic importance associated with status. Networks of importing and selling textiles in colonial America added to the material culture that expanded as part of the consumer revolution. The rise of consumer society brought about universal participation by nearly all colonists, to one extent or another. Drawing on a “language of goods,” colonists could assess others based on their clothing and other possessions. Assessing social meaning focused on whether the apparel matched their character and status, especially as the importation and circulation of textiles increased and prices went down.

According to N.B. Harte in “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” even though the “production of linen was the most widespread industrial activity in America during the colonial period … large amounts of linen were imported from across the Atlantic.” As Harte mentions, colonists produced their own linen yet at the same time remained dependent on imports from the British Isles. The linen industry suggested the potential for a break from Britain, as Americans made some their own consumer goods.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Chloe concludes with a tantalizing possibility. Drawing on discussions about economic resistance to the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and other abuses by Parliament from our Revolutionary America class, she invokes plans envisioned by colonists who wanted to establish greater commercial independence from England even if they were not yet prepared to declare political independence. In addition to new taxes and new regulations imposed by Parliament, colonists lamented an imbalance of trade with England in the late 1760s, giving them another reason to promote both production and consumption of local goods.

Yet as the advertisement Chloe selected demonstrates, colonists imported large quantities of textiles. “IRISH LINEN” was one of several sorts of fabrics up for bids at John Gerrish’s “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE” in Boston. The auctioneer also listed “Cotton Checks,” “Striped Holland,” “Kersies,” “Serges,” and other kinds of imported cloth readily recognized by colonial consumers. Those who advocated for production and consumption of “domestic manufactures” thus had to overcome at least two obstacles. On the production side, they needed to expand the capacity for producing textiles. After all, colonists imported so many linens and other fabrics because they did not produce sufficient quantities themselves. On the consumption side, they needed to shift tastes away from some of the finer fabrics that denoted wealth and status. Affixing a political meaning to homespun cloth was part of that process.

Even if colonists could accomplish the latter – and they had some success in doing so, at least for short periods during particularly tense relations with Parliament – the former remained idealistic rather than practical. Editorials promoting domestic manufactures ran in newspapers throughout the colonies. Many artisans, shopkeepers, and other advertisers responded by incorporating such messages into their notices aimed at prospective customers. Yet even when consumers were willing to consider local alternatives to imported textiles, the colonies did not have the capacity to produce sufficient quantities to meet their needs. Rhetoric and reality deviated, but that did not necessarily diminish the power of the rhetoric as colonists considered their own consumer choices and assessed other for they choices they made.

 

March 28

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

Mar 28 - 3:28:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 28, 1768).

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY.”

John Gerrish was one of several auctioneers who sold goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE” in Boston in the late 1760s. He regularly advertised in the city’s newspapers, as did Elias Dupee and Joseph Russell. Residents recognized their establishments by name: Gerrish ran the “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE, NORTH END,” Russell operated the “Auction-Room in Queen-Street,” and Dupee sold goods at the “NEW AUCTION ROOM.” In their competition for clients and bidders, all three inserted notices concerning upcoming auctions in the March 28, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette. Each offered a short description of items coming up for sale within the next couple of weeks, but Gerrish supplemented his brief overview with an additional appeal to prospective clients who wished to place items up for bidding.

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH,” he proclaimed, “may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders – and remitting the Neat proceeds immediately, after they are Sold, deliver’d, and paid for.” Gerrish’s clients “shall be faithfully served by him.” Dupee, Russell, and Gerrish periodically offered such assurances in their advertisements, but Gerrish made a point of it in the spring of 1768 since he and Dupee had recently been involved in a public dispute, waged in their newspaper advertisements, that highlighted the potential for disreputable behavior by vendue masters who might not always act in the best interests of their clients.

In stressing his “Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders,” Gerrish addressed suspicions of collusion. His clients did not need to worry that he would attempt to rig sales to benefit his friends and associates looking to acquire goods for even better bargains than auctions might otherwise yield. The typography underscored this point: an examination of other advertisements in the same issue suggests that the compositor did not choose to capitalize “FAIRLY” or use italics for “Faithfulness” and “Highest Bidders” (as well as “Trustees” in a list of potential clients that included “Gentlemen Strangers, Passengers, [and] Factors”).

Consigning goods to an auctioneer required trust. Gerrish encouraged potential clients to deliver items they wished to sell to the Public Vendue Office in the North End rather than the Auction Room in Queen Street or the New Auction Room by pledging that he conscientiously worked to garner the highest proceeds and remitted them in a timely manner. He did not just offer a service; he built relationships that also enhanced his reputation.

February 21

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

Feb 21 - 2:18:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 18, 1768).

“No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office.”

John Gerrish had a bone to pick with Elias Dupee. Gerrish operated the North-End Vendue-Office. Dupee, his rival, ran the New-Auction Room. The two competed for both clients who supplied merchandise and bidders who purchased those wares.

On February 15, 1768, Dupee placed advertisements impugning Gerrish’s reputation in two newspapers, the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy. Gerrish was so concerned about the accusations leveled against him that he did not wait a week to respond in the publications that originally ran Dupee’s advertisement. Instead, he published his own rebuttal just three days later in the Massachusetts Gazette. After devoting just a few lines to promoting his upcoming auction, Gerrish addressed Dupee’s allegations at length. Though he never mentioned his rival by name, Gerrish did closely paraphrase a portion of Dupee’s advertisement.

Dupee had offered a reward “to be paid to any Body, who shall bring to Justice, one John Taylor, who Stole out of the New Auction Room, the Night the Fire was, a blue Surtout Coat, and had it Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Anyone who resided in Boston would have know that John Gerrish was the auctioneer at the North-End Vendue-Office, especially anyone who regularly read any of the local newspapers. Gerrish, like Dupee and Joseph Russell from the Auction-Room in Queen Street, advertised regularly in several newspapers.

In his advertisement, Dupee explicitly accused Taylor of being a thief, but he also implicitly alleged that Gerrish was Taylor’s fence when he stated that the stolen coat had been “Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Such allegations had the potential to do significant damage to Gerrish’s reputation, scaring away bidders who did not wish to obtain stolen merchandise as well as suppliers who did not want their own names or ware associated with illicit business practices. Gerrish answered Dupee’s charges with a detailed timeline. The “Coat Sold for Taylor” had entered the North-End Vendue-Office ten days before the fire at Dupee’s New Auction Room, therefore it could not have been the same coat stolen the night of the fire. In addition, Gerrish identified discrepancies between the quality and price of the coat auctioned at his establishment and the one stolen from Dupee. Furthermore, the coat had been on display and “every Day exposed for Sale,” suggesting that many witnesses could attest to having seen it at the North-End Vendue-Office. Some of them could confirm the quality and value of that coat.

Gerrish acknowledged the possibility that Taylor had stolen a coat from Dupee, but if he had it was not the one that Gerrish auctioned. “Taylor may be a Thief,” he stated, “but verily he did not look more like one, than the Advertiser.” Dupee had attacked Gerrish’s reputation. Gerrish responded in kind. He also underscored, just in case readers had not followed all the complexity of his timeline, that “there is not the least probability, that the Coat Advertised, is the same that was Sold at the North-End Vendue-Office.”

Gerrish concluded with a message for prospective clients and potential bidders. “No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office, in endeavouring to detect suspected persons, –he has detected several, –let others beware.” Many colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century via an informal economy that included secondhand and stolen goods. Newspaper advertisements frequently alerted readers about stolen goods. In addition, court records show that theft and fencing regularly occurred. That being the case, Gerrish devoted significant effort to demonstrating that he conducted a legitimate business that did not truck in stolen wares. He needed buyers and sellers, as well as the community more generally, to trust in his character if he wished to continue his business and compete against the rival auction houses in Boston.

Feb 21 - 2:15:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 15, 1768).

January 21

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

Jan 21 - 1:21:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 21, 1768).

“PUBLIC VENDUE, At the NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.”

Auctioneer John Gerrish inserted advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette to encourage residents of Boston and its environs to buy and sell at his “Public Vendue-Office” in the North End. His upcoming auctions included “A great Variety of Articles, — lately imported,” including “Mens Apparel,” a “Variety of Callimancoes,” and “a Parcel of well-made, exceeding stout P. JACKETS and Breeches, very suitable in the present Season for Fishermen.” In addition to new merchandise, he also auctioned “Second hand Articles.” This selection matched the inventories listed in advertisements for shops and other auction houses in local newspapers.

To convince both buyers and sellers to do business at his establishment, Gerrish asserted that the experience would compare favorably to commercial transactions conducted elsewhere in the urban port. “All Sorts of Goods sell full as well at the North End,” he proclaimed, “as in King-Street, Queen-Street, or any other Street, or Auction Room in Boston.” In a bustling city, readers had many choices when it came to venues for buying and selling consumer goods. Gerrish did not want them to dismiss the North End out of hand.

The “Public Vendue Master” also underscored that buyers and sellers could depend on fairness when they made their transactions at the “NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.” Realizing that some readers might indeed have preferences for familiar shops and auction houses elsewhere in the city, he strove to bolster his reputation by assuring potential clients and customers that they had nothing to lose if they instead chose his vendue office. Those who decided to “Employ the Master of said Vendue Office” could “depend upon His Fidelity,” trusting that he made every effort to market their merchandise prior to the auction and encourage the highest possible returns during the bidding. Invoking his “Fidelity” also suggested that he kept accurate books and did not attempt to cheat sellers, especially those who could not be present at an auction to witness the bidding. Yet he also served those looking to make purchases, stressing that “all BUYERS may depend upon never being IMPOSED upon in said Vendue Office.” Gerrish pledged not to unduly pressure prospective customers who attended his auctions. Even as he worked as an intermediary who executed exchanges between buyers and sellers, he wanted each to feel as though they ultimately remained in charge of their commercial transactions rather than relinquishing control to potential manipulation on his part.

John Gerrish, Public Vendue Master, did more than merely announce that he conducted auctions in Boston’s North End. He encouraged both buyers and sellers to participate by instilling confidence in the process, promising that he faithfully served them. Colonists had many choices when it came to acquiring and selling consumer goods. Gerrish used his advertisement to assure them that doing business at his auction house was an option well worth their consideration.