July 19

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

Jul 19 - 7:19:1770 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (July 19, 1770).

“Ah—Liberty!  …. An empty sound alone remains of thee.”

John Mason, an upholsterer, did not merely seek to sell paper hangings (or wallpaper) and bedding materials when he placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal in the summer of 1770.  His entire advertisement was a short sermon about the current political crisis and the fate of the nonimportation agreement adopted by the merchants of Philadelphia in response to the duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts.  All of those duties had been recently repealed, with the exception of the duty on tea, prompting merchants in New York to bring an end to their nonimportation agreement and begin trading with English merchants once again.  Residents of other cities and towns debated whether they would continue their own boycotts.  The nonimportation agreement in Philadelphia was on the verge of collapse.  It came to an end on September 20.

Mason apparently did not agree with the direction he saw the merchants and traders in his city heading.  He used his advertisement to encourage the continuation of the nonimportation agreement as well as condemn the merchants in New York for so hastily resuming trade as soon as they heard about the repeal of most of the duties.  The nonimportation agreements were intended to stay in effect until Parliament repealed all the duties, yet the duties on tea remained.

Mason began his advertisement with a play on words, stating that he “STILL prays for liberty to inform the public, that he would be glad to dispose of his property.”  He implied that all liberty was at stake, not just his ability to hawk goods in the marketplace.  He deployed the same turn of phrase in another advertisement that doubled as a political lecture a year earlier.  In his new epistle, he informed prospective customers that he sold papers hangings “not lately imported,” making clear that he continued to abide by the nonimportation agreement, as well as variety of bedding materials that he presumably made in his upholstery shop.  “The utility of these beds,” he proclaimed, “is not duly attended to, as they say, by sleeping on them.”  If the purpose of beds was not for sleeping then what was it?  Mason believed his bedding materials served a more important purpose as symbols of American liberty.  Consumers should purchase them to demonstrate their own commitment to the cause, especially during “this crisis, when our Liberty is tottering, like our Neighbour’s Resolutions*.”  Just in case readers missed his meaning, an asterisk confirmed that he critiqued recent actions in “*NEW YORK.:”

To underscore his point, he inserted a short poem for the edification of both merchants and consumers in Philadelphia:

Ah—Liberty!  How loved, how valued once, avail thee not
To whom retail’d, or by whom begot,
An empty sound alone remains of theee,
And its all thy one pretended Votaries‡ shall be—

Mason contended that liberty had been valued for a time, but all that remained of it was an “empty sound” because its “pretended Votaries,” the merchants in New York, prematurely abandoned the cause by withdrawing from the nonimportation agreement before all the duties had been repealed.  He inserted two more lines of commentary about those “pretended Votaries‡.”  Mason accused them of a “sad blunder, never to be mended” and accused them of causing the entire enterprise to fail.  “This one bad step, the contest ended,” he lamented.  Merchants in New York and other cities saw the repeal of most of the duties on imported goods as a victory.  They believed their nonimportation agreement had served its purpose (or at least well enough to return to business and resume trading).  Mason disagreed.  Until Parliament repealed the duties on tea, bringing an end to the boycotts was nothing more than capitulation.  Parliament had not met the terms that stated the nonimportation agreements would remain in effect until all the duties were repealed.  Mason took a harder line than many other colonists, using a newspaper advertisement to express his views to the general public.

August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:7:1769 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 7, 1769).

“JOHN MASON, Upholsterer, PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customers that he has removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house.”

As the imperial crisis intensified in the late 1760s, newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services increasingly incorporated political messages intended to sway prospective customers. Many such advertisements underscored the benefits of encouraging “domestic manufactures” to achieve greater self-sufficiency and the virtues of purchasing those locally produced goods. Those advertisements often connected their “Buy American” appeals to faithful adherence to nonimportation agreements adopted to resist Parliament’s attempts to enact new taxes, first via the Stamp Act and later through imposing duties on certain imported goods via the Townshend Acts.

Such advertisements became a genre that deployed similar language and took similar forms. In his attempt to sell mattresses and market his services as an upholsterer, John Mason took an even bolder approach. Like other purveyors of goods and services, he turned to the public prints to inform prospective customers when he moved locations. The language he used, however, had distinct political overtones that certainly resonated with debates taking place in newspapers as well as in taverns, coffeehouses, and the public square. Mason trumpeted that he “PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customer that he removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house … where he carries on the Upholstery Business.” The word “PRAYS” appeared in capitals because it was the first word in the body of the advertisement. “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY,” however, apparently appeared in capitals because Mason specified that they needed appropriate emphasis. The upholsterer invoked two of the most important concepts animating resistance to Parliament.

Readers could hardly have missed the point when they considered “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” in combination with the nota bene that Mason appended to his advertisement. “No WONDER that Liberty is the Common Cry,” Mason lectured, “for if it was not the inanimate creation would cry out against us, for the very flowers, they, when deprived of their Liberty, Choose Death Rather, than be Confined in the softest bosom.—Methinks a Moment’s Reflections would Convince those that would Deprive us of our Liberty and property that they are Doing WRONG – for if our Fathers have No Right to Deprive us of our Liberty and property after Twenty-one Years, Certainly out Mother* can have No Right after we have enjoyed it near an Hundred Years. *Mother Country.” In this sermon on liberty, Mason looked to the history of the colonies for guidance and precedents. Parliament could not suddenly impose regulations the colonies after more than a century of allowing them to govern themselves through their own colonial assemblies. Furthermore, the stark choice between liberty and death so was evident that it could be witnessed even in the natural world, as Mason attested in his example of flowers that dies when held too closely, even in the most loving embrace.

At a time when many purveyors of consumer goods and services crafted advertisements that either implicitly or softly invoked politics to influence prospective customers, Mason made a full-throated declaration of his political sentiments. Inserting this editorial into his advertisement allowed him to demonstrate his politics to customers. In addition to adding his voice to the discourse unfolding in the public prints, Mason also intended to encourage customers to support his business because they agreed with his politics and admired his bold stance.

July 9

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

Jul 9 - 7:9:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (July 9, 1767).

“He finds it necessary to reduce the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.”

Upholsterer John Mason placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette when he significantly reduced the prices he charged for various services. His method for delivering this information, however, could have used a little refinement. Rather than focus on the deals that benefited prospective customers, Mason offered two other explanations for lowering his fees: “the Stagnation of Business and Scarcity of Cash.” While both of these factors prompted Mason to adjust his prices, neither of them placed customers at the center of Mason’s business model. Overcoming the “Stagnation of Business” was self-serving, hardly a fault for a tradesman trying to make a living but perhaps not the most artful way to frame his motivation fueling the business relationships he hoped to cultivate. He seemed to be saying that current conditions forced him to lower his fees rather than more graciously formulating this as a benefit intended specifically to advantage customers. Acknowledging the “Scarcity of Cash” made a nod toward the concerns of prospective clients. Many may have found themselves in a situation of not being able to afford to hire Mason at the former rates because they did not have access to sufficient cash. The reduced fees made the upholsterer’s services more obtainable.

Still, Mason underplayed the most important appeal in his advertisement. He noted that he had “reduce[d] the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.” In other words, he knocked a tremendous 33% off his prices! Mason set about demonstrating this with a list of the fees he now charged for various services. He even encouraged prospective clients to compare “the above Prices with the Upholsterers Bills” (perhaps handbills distributed or posted by competitors), but this called for readers to expend additional effort to confirm a claim that he made only once rather than asserting it repeatedly and with greater force. Mason made his case, presenting a list of fees as evidence to support it, but the overarching message seems to have been overshadowed by the details. Mason may not have presented too much information, but that does not mean that he optimized the marketing potential associated with significant price reductions.

This critique may not be completely fair to an advertiser who operated within the conventions of eighteenth-century marketing practices. After all, his notice displayed a fair amount of innovation that distinguished it from others. However, it lacked other elements designed to attract attention and generate excitement. Mason opted for practical numbers instead of insistent proclamations about price reductions. He opted for substance over style, which may have better served potential customers in the end. Yet that decision demonstrates the chasm between advertising innovations in the eighteenth century and innovations that became standard practices in later centuries.