What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
In December 1772, John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, ran an advertisement that listed a variety of stationery wares imported via the Lady Gage and other vessels recently arrived from London and now available for sale at his printing office. Holt’s inventory included “ACCOUNT, and blank books of all sorts and sizes,” “Writing paper of all kinds from the lowest to the highest prices … with black, or gilt edges, or plain,” “Receipt books of all sorts and sizes, with and without clasps, some interleaved with blotting paper,” and “Very best red and black wax of all Sorts, and wafers in boxes.”
Given the time of the year, Holt stocked “Almanacks of several sorts for the Year 1773.” In a nod to the holiday that would take place just a week before the new year, the printer also listed “Christmas pieces” among the pamphlets he carried. He did not, however, suggest that any of his other merchandise, such as “Newberry’s children’s books of all sorts” and “Best Merry Andrew and Harry’s playing cards,” might make for good Christmas gifts.
That Holt even mentioned “Christmas pieces” in December did distinguish him from other merchants and shopkeepers. In stark contrast to today’s association of Christmas with marketing and consumerism, colonizers did not make the same connections. Only rarely did retailers attempt to make sale by encouraging consumers to purchase gifts. The appropriately named Garrat Noel, a bookseller and stationer in New York, did so in December 1765 when he “offer[ed] to the Public, the following List of Books, as proper for Christmas Presents and New-Year’s Gifts.” He confided that he set “extraordinary low Prices” as “an Encouragement to those who are willing to be generous on the Occasion.” He described that holiday sale as “his annual Custom.” Most other retailers did not adopt or expand that custom. John Mein, a bookseller in Boston, marketed a “Large Assortment of entertaining and instructive Books for Children, very proper for Christmas and New Year’s Gifts,” the following year, but throughout the colonies such examples were rare.
Marketing and Christmas were not yet synonymous in eighteenth-century America, despite the efforts of a few booksellers to connect purchasing gifts, especially for children, and the holiday. Holt’s “Christmas pieces” may very well have been devotional literature not intended as gifts. The pages of colonial newspapers carried very different messages about Christmas and consumerism than newspapers, radios, televisions, and the internet would disseminate in December in later centurires.