July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 28, 1770).


Joseph Russell and William Russell were among Providence’s mercantile elite in the decade prior to the American Revolution.  They conducted business at a shop marked by the Sign of the Golden Eagle, a device that became inextricably associated with the Russells.  Their name and the sign were interchangeable in advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette.  Sometimes their notices included their names and the sign, sometimes just their names, and sometimes just the sign.  When advertisements included just their names, readers knew that they could find the Russells at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.  When advertisements directed readers to the Sign of the Golden Eagle, they knew that they would be dealing with the Russells.  No matter which configuration appeared in their advertisements, the Russells’ use of the public prints to promote their various enterprises enhanced and contributed to their visibility as prominent merchants.

They achieved that visibility with a variety of novel approaches to advertising, including full-page advertisements and multiple advertisements in a single issue.  In November 1766, they published what may have been the first full-page advertisement for consumer goods in an American newspaper.  (This excludes book catalogs that printer-booksellers inserted into their own newspapers, taking advantage of their access to the press.)  In addition, placing multiple advertisements per issue helped keep their names in the public eye, a strategy adopted by a small number of advertisers in the largest port cities.  Consider the July 28, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  It featured fourteen paid notices and a short advertisement for blanks inserted by the printer.  Of those fourteen advertisements, the Russells placed two, one on each page that had advertisements.  One of them presented various commodities for sale, while the other offered cash in exchange for potash and salts.  The Russells certainly were not the only American entrepreneurs to use the strategy of drawing readers’ attention to their names multiple times in a single issue of a newspaper, but they were the only ones who did so regularly in the Providence Gazette, a publication that tended to run fewer advertisements than its counterparts in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.  As a result, their advertisements were all the more noticeable because they competed with fewer others for attention.

May 26

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

May 26 - 5:26:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 26, 1770).


Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the many merchants in New England who sought to acquire potash, pearl ash, and salts in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Potash production was a significant industry in the region in the second half of the eighteenth century.  Colonists produced pot ash, salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form, by leaching wood ashes and then evaporating the solution in potash kettles, leaving behind a white residue.  Potash and related commodities were used in making soap and gunpowder.  Starting in the 1760s, according to Carl Bridenbaugh, “potash became a staple commodity of New York and New England.”[1]

For several weeks in the spring of 1770, the Russells inserted an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce “CASH given for Pot-Ash, Pearl-Ash, and Salts,” a familiar refrain that appeared in newspapers published in Boston, New London, Portsmouth, and other towns in New England.  In the May 26 edition, their advertisement happened to run next to the “PRICES CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of the going rates for a variety of commodities traded in the town.  The prices current included potash at 30 pounds per ton, the more refined pearl ash at 40 pounds per ton, and black salts at 26 pounds per ton.  Any readers who heeded the Russells’ call for potash and related commodities could easily determine if the merchants offered a fair price.

Lists of prices current appeared in many colonial newspapers, a regular feature in some but not as frequently in others.  Readers could work back and forth between advertisements and the prices current to envision a more complete picture of local commerce.  Similarly, they could compare the shipping news, another feature of many colonial newspapers, to advertisements for consumer goods that indicated the ship and captain that delivered the merchandise.  The record of vessels arriving and departing port aided in determining how recently merchants and shopkeepers received their wares.  Advertisements in colonial newspapers did not necessarily stand alone.  Instead, colonists could engage in active reading that took into consideration delivered in both advertisements and other features in newspapers, including the shipping news and lists of prices current.


[1] Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 105.

April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Providence Gazette (April 22, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

The word “Pot-Ash” caught my attention as I was looking at this advertisement, since I had never heard of it. After doing some research, I learned from a journal article by Henry Paynter that potash is a type of potassium carbonate that was made from the ashes of trees and plants during the eighteenth century. Home potash production was encouraged during the American Revolution, since it could be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder. For more day-to-day life, it was used to make goods such as soap and glass, to dye fabrics, and for baking. Potash soap was very popular in England during the middle of the eighteenth century. Similar to South Carolina indigo compared to indigo from French and Spanish colonies, Great Britain imported potash produced in the American colonies rather than Russia because of its cheaper price, sacrificing quality to save money. As the colonial potash industry matured, production shifted north in order to utilize trees more favorable for making potash. Unfortunately, this process led to mass amounts of forests being cleared by the late eighteenth century, and Americans had to find other ways to produce the money-making potash.



Like many other colonial newspapers, the masthead of the Providence Gazette proclaimed that it “Contain[ed] the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” Although the printer, John Carter, and many readers may have considered news items the most significant of those “Advices,” advertisements also kept colonists informed of events and commerce by providing details not necessarily available elsewhere in the newspaper. On occasion, Carter did not have sufficient space to publish all of the “Advices,” whether classified as news or paid notices. The April 22, 1769, edition included a brief note to that effect: “Sundry Articles of Intelligence composed for the Day’s Paper, and a few Advertisements, omitted for Want of Room, shall be in our next.”

Even though some advertisements did not make it into the April 22 issue, Joseph Russell and William Russell were well represented in its pages. News comprised the first two pages, a portion of the third, and most of the fourth. Overall, advertising accounted for slightly less than an entire page. Yet the Russells managed to have two advertisements included among the contents, the notice concerning potash on the final page and another promoting “Barrel Pork,” pepper, indigo, and other commodities on the third page. Both would have been familiar to regular readers of the Providence Gazette, having appeared the previous week and in earlier issues. As a result, these “Advices” may have seemed less pressing than the information in other advertisements or the “Sundry Articles of Intelligence” already composed but omitted until the following week.

Carter may have granted preferential treatment to the Russells precisely because they were such prolific advertisers. They advertised often, sometimes placing multiple advertisements in a single issue. They also tended to insert lengthy advertisements, especially when they listed dozens or hundreds of items they imported and sold at their shop. Carter relied on revenues from advertising to make the Providence Gazette a viable enterprise. In the colophon, every week he called on readers to submit both subscriptions and advertisements to the printing office. Given that the Russells did so regularly advertise in the pages of his newspaper, Carter may have prioritized their advertisements over others when running low on space, even though the “Advices” provided by the Russells had already become familiar in Providence and beyond over the course of several weeks.

April 16

GUEST CURATOR: Matt Ringstaff

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

Providence Gazette (April 15, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

Before seeing the word “Pot-Ash” in Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement from 1769 in the Providence Gazette I had no idea what is was or what it was used for. I understood from the advertisement was that there was a large market for it. Potash, “a crude form of potassium carbonate,” came from the ashes of burned trees. Colonists originally used it for making soap and, later, gunpowder. According to William E. Burns, colonists used small amounts of potash for baking to help cakes rise. Colonists made potash “by burning logs and other wood to ashes, then placing the ashes in a barrel lined with twigs and straw.” After that step, “[p]otash makers poured water on top of the ashes, dissolving out the salts.” Then they boiled what was left to create potassium carbonate that “made up less than a quarter of the mass.” Potash had many uses in colonial times, “from household soapmaking to glass manufacture.”[1]



Sometimes when guest curators examine the featured advertisements I instead choose to comment more extensively on methodology, pedagogy, or the benefits and challenges of working with digitized primary sources. For this entry, I offer a few comments on Assumption College’s twenty-fifth annual Undergraduate Symposium.

Today all of the guest curators that have worked on the project this spring will make presentations about their contributions at the Symposium, sharing their work beyond the classroom in yet another forum. Designed to replicate a conference, the Symposium draws together talented undergraduate students from across the many departments on campus. Students may make oral presentations or participate in poster sessions, whichever best fits their projects and matches the practices in their disciplines.

The guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project, all of them History majors enrolled in my upper-level Revolutionary America class, will make presentations that they have previously delivered in class in preparation for the Symposium. I oversaw a workshop for each presentation. The entire class discussed what worked well and offered constructive suggestions for improvement so each guest curator could make the necessary revisions and deliver a polished presentation at the Symposium.

The ten presentations related to the Adverts 250 Project have been divided into two sessions of five presentations each. A faculty moderator from the Symposium Committee will oversee each session. I will make a formal introduction for each young scholar. Then each will make a ten-minute presentation, followed by five minutes for questions and discussion. Later in the day everyone involved in the Symposium will gather at a reception hosted by the Provost and the Symposium Committee to celebrate their accomplishments.

Preparing for and participating in the Symposium requires a lot of time. In my Revolutionary America class, we have given over three of twenty-seven class meetings to this endeavor. This means that we cover less content in the course of the semester, but I know from experience that students ultimately learn the content we do cover much better because it has been linked to other skills they have developed and honed as part of the Adverts 250 Project. From History Labs in class to the Symposium near the end of the semester, the guest curators have enhanced their information literacy, expanded their research skills, refined their writing abilities, and gained valuable experience with public speaking. All of these will serve them well in their future studies and, more significantly, beyond the classroom.

Good luck at the Symposium today, guest curators!


[1] William E. Burns, Science and Technology in Colonial America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 25.

March 18

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

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

Providence Gazette (March 18, 1769).

“Choice Indico.”

This advertisement shows that Joseph and William Russell had multiple items for sale, including pork, pepper, and nails. I selected “choice Indico” to examine in more detail. Indigo was used as a blue dye for clothing and other textiles. This highly priced dye was produced in the southern colonies. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “By 1755 the Carolina colony alone was exporting around 200,000 pounds of indigo annually; Georgia was just beginning to export indigo, with 4,500 pounds exported that year. Georgia’s indigo exportation reached its peak in 1770, with more than 22,00 pounds.” Production of indigo collapsed in the colonies at the onset of the Revolutionary War because plantations in Central America and Florida were able to produce more crops per year based on their climate. Indigo dye was important to the colonies. Just like the potash from yesterday’s advertisement, producing indigo and exporting it helped colonists earn money to buy imported goods.



As we revised earlier drafts of his entry for today’s advertisement, Zach and I discussed the intended audience. He hypothesized that the Russells did not target end-use consumers but instead sought to attract the attention of masters of vessels who needed to supplies when they visited Providence. Zach suspected that much of the “CHOICE Barrel Pork,” cordage, “Nails of all Sorts” hawked by the Russells ended up aboard ships that sailed on commercial ventures from Providence to other places throughout the Atlantic world.

I agree with Zach for a couple of reasons. First, he offers a sound interpretation of the specific commodities offered by the Russells in this particular advertisement. I also agree with him because of the style of the advertisement and the many sorts of goods that it did not include. The Russells were prominent merchants in Providence. They regularly advertised in the Providence Gazette, ranking among the most prolific advertisers in that publication. Their advertisements often invited consumers to visit their shop and examine the variety of items they offered for sale. For instance, one previous advertisement announced “A most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS,” although it did not describe any of the merchandise. In another advertisement they described their “large, neat, and compleat Assortment of English, India, and Hard-Ware GOODS” as “by far the largest and best Assortment in this Town.” Others went into elaborate detail about the Russells’s inventory. They were the first advertisers to experiment with full-page advertisements in the Providence Gazette. On such occasions they listed hundreds of items in stock at their shop “at the Sign of the Golden Eagle,” a landmark that became nearly exceptionally familiar in the public prints. In their advertisements placed as retailers, they often addressed prospective customers as “Gentlemen and Ladies both in Town and Country.”

These elements were missing from the Russells’s advertisement in the March 18, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Based on the types of goods offered for the sale, the quantities, and the style of the advertisement, it appears that they sought different buyers than they addressed in many of their other advertisements. This time they operated as merchants providing supplies in bulk rather than as shopkeepers cultivating relationships with consumers.

January 14

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

Providence Gazette (January 14, 1769).

“To be Sold at the Golden Eagle.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, advertisers used a variety of other means to advise prospective customers where to find their shops and stores. Consider the directions offered in advertisements in the January 14, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Samuel Chace listed his location as “just below the Great Bridge.” Similarly, Samuel Black specified that his store was “on the West Side of the Great Bridge, and near the Long Wharff.” Other advertisers included even more elaborate instructions. Darius Sessions reported that his shop was “on the main Street, between the Court-House and Church, and directly opposite the large Button-Wood Tree.” Patrick Mackey announced that “he has opened a Skinner’s Shop near the Hay-Ward, on the East Side of the Great Bridge, between Mr. Godfry’s and the Sign of the Bull.” These advertisers expected prospective customers would navigate the city via a combination of street names, landmarks, and shop signs.

In contrast, another advertisement, one that did not name the merchant or shopkeeper who inserted it in the Providence Gazette, simply proclaimed, “a general Assortment of ENGLISH and HARD WARE GOODS, to be Sold at the Golden Eagle.” The store operated by Joseph Russell and William Russell was so renowned that its location did not require elaboration. The Russells considered it so well known that they did not need to include their names in the advertisement. Instead, their shop sign served as the sole representation of their business in the public prints. “Golden Eagle” even appeared in larger font, making it the central focus of advertisement. In other advertisements, the names “Samuel Chace,” “Samuel Black,” and “Darius Sessions” drew attention as headlines in font the same size as “Golden Eagle.” This was not the first time that the Russells had excluded their names in favor of having their shop sign stand in for them. A brief advertisement published two months earlier informed readers about “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” That they repeatedly deployed this strategy suggests their confidence that their shop sign was known and recognized, both by readers who perused the Providence Gazette and by prospective customers who traversed the streets of Providence.

November 19

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

Nov 19 - 11:19:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 19, 1768).

“To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.”

An advertisement that ran several times in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1768 informed readers quite simply of “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, to be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” The notice did not provide additional information about the location of the shop or the proprietor. In another advertisement inserted simultaneously, Joseph Russell and William Russell hawked a variety of hardware goods they carried “at their Store and Shop, the Sign of the Golden Eagle, near the Court-House, Providence.”

Other entrepreneurs who advertised in the Providence Gazette provided directions to aid prospective customers in finding their places of business. E. Thompson and Company stocked a variety of merchandise “At their STORE, near the Great Bridge.” Samuel Chaice also relied solely on a prominent landmark when he advised readers of the inventory “At his Store, just below the Great Bridge, in Providence.” Others deployed a combination of landmarks and shop signs. James Arnold and Company, for instance, promoted an assortment of goods available “At their STORE, the Sign of the GOLDEN FOX, near the Great Bridge.” Clark and Nightingale invited customers to visit them “At their Store, the Sign of the Fish and Frying-Pan, opposite Oliver Arnold’s, Esquire.” The colophon doubled as an advertisement for job printing done “by JOHN CARTER, at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespears Head.”

Those advertisements that included shop signs also developed a brand that identified the proprietors, though not necessarily their merchandise. The shop signs became sufficient identification for their enterprises, as was the case with the Russells’ advertisement that did not list their names but instead simply noted readers could purchase tar, pitch, and turpentine “at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” The Russells were among the most prominent merchants in Providence. They were also the most prolific advertisers in the Providence Gazette in the late 1760s. As a result, they did not need to provide their names or further directions in some of their advertisements. They trusted that the public was already familiar with the sign of the “GOLDEN EAGLE,” so familiar as to render any additional information superfluous. Their frequent advertisements aided in associating the image of the “GOLDEN EAGLE” with their business and their commercial identity.

October 22

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

Oct 22 - 10:22:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 22, 1768).

“The Snow TRISTRAM … WILL be ready to sail in 14 Days.”

In the late 1760s Joseph Russell and William Russell advertised frequently in the Providence Gazette. Unlike most advertisers throughout the colonies, they sometimes ran multiple advertisements in a single issue, a tactic that enhanced their prominence as local merchants and gave their enterprises even greater visibility. Such was the case in October 1768. On October 1 they placed a new advertisement for “a neat and fresh Assortment of GOODS” that they had just imported “in the Ship Cleopatra.” It appeared in all five issues published in October. On October 15 they inserted a new advertisement that solicited passengers and cargo for the Tristram, scheduled to sail for London in fourteen days. In the same advertisement the Russells seized the opportunity to hawk their “stout Russia DUCK, best Bohea TEA, [and] an neat Assortment of Irish LINENS.”

That advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette on two more occasions, but never with updated copy. It ran in the October 22 edition, still proclaiming that the Tristram “WILL be ready to sail in 14 Days.” Anyone interested in arranging “Freight or Passage” needed to pay attention to the date listed at the end of the advertisement: “October 15, 1768.” The advertisement made one final appearance on October 29 – the day the Tristram was supposed to set sail – still stating that the ship would depart in fourteen days. It may have still been possible to book passage, but unlikely that Captain David Shand took on additional cargo at that time. The Russells, however, continued to peddle textiles and tea along with the assortment of other merchandise promoted in the companion advertisement published elsewhere in the issue.

The Russells provided enough information for prospective clients to determine the sailing date of the Tristram even though they did not revise the copy as the date approached. Listing the date they submitted the advertisement to the printing office was an imperative component because once the type had been set the notice would run without changes until it was discontinued. Very rarely did advertisements undergo any sort of revision in colonial America. Instead, they were eventually replaced with new advertisements comprised of completely different copy, if advertisers wished to continue at all. This meant that advertisements that ran for any length of time might include outdated portions, an aspect that likely contributed to skepticism of marketing efforts by readers.

July 23

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

Jul 23 - 7:23:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 23, 1768).

“A most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS.”

It would have been practically impossible for regular readers of the Providence Gazette not to know something about the commercial activities of Joseph Russell and William Russell in the late 1760s. The Russells were prolific advertisers. They saturated the pages of their local newspaper with a series of notices that made their names and merchandise familiar to prospective customers.

For instance, the Russells placed three advertisements in the July 23, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. One promoted their “most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS.” Another offered a house for rent, but concluded with an announcement concerning textiles, tea, and spices they sold. The third called on fellow colonists to deliver potash to the Russells.

The three appeared in a single column on the final page of the July 23 issue. It was the fifth issue that featured all three advertisements and the third consecutive issue in which they appeared one after another, though their position on the page changed from week to week depending on the needs of the compositor. By placing so many advertisements and so frequently, the Russells made it difficult to overlook their activities in the colonial marketplace.

The first of their advertisements was especially notable for its longevity. The “(23)” inserted on the final line indicated that it first ran in issue number 223, published April 16. Since then, it had maintained a constant presence in the Providence Gazette, appearing every week for fifteen consecutive weeks before being discontinued. Throughout most of that time the Russells simultaneously published at least one other advertisement in the Providence Gazette. The notice concerning a house for rent and assorted goods for sale first appeared on July 25, replacing another advertisement that exclusively promoted consumer goods that ran for seven weeks beginning in May.

Most advertisers usually ran notices for only three or four weeks in newspapers published in other cities. Those who advertised in the Providence Gazette tended to run their advertisements for even longer (which may suggest the publishers offered discounted rates in order to generate content and revenue). Still, the Russells’ “SPRING and SUMMER GOODS” notice enjoyed an exceptionally long run, signaling that they wanted to be certain that readers saw and remembered their advertisement. Combining it with other notices further increased the name recognition they achieved.

July 2

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

Jul 2 - 7:2:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 2, 1768).

“At their Shop, the Sign of the Golden Eagle, near the Court-House. (23).”

Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement for “A most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS” available “at their Shop, the Sign of the Golden Eagle, near the Court-House” in Providence incorporated graphic design elements intended to attract the attention of newspaper readers and prospective customers. The copious use of all capitals and large fonts distinguished their advertisement from many others that appeared in the Providence Gazette in the spring and summer of 1768. As a result of their decisions concerning the visual aspects of their advertisement, the Russells’ notice included far less text than many others of a similar length. They traded the extra copy for distinctive graphic design.

Yet not every element of their advertisement was intended for the readers of the Providence Gazette. Like many other paid notices that appeared in that publication, it concluded with a number in parentheses: in this case, “(23).” Several other advertisements in the July 2, 1768, edition also featured two-digit numbers. Shopkeepers J. Mathewson and E. Thompson and Company both had “(32)” on the final line of their advertisement. The same number appeared at the end of Joseph Whitcomb’s notice concerning a stolen horse. Isaac Field, executor to the estate of Joseph Field, inserted a notice with “(33)” on the same line as his name. Nicholas Clark’s advertisement seeking “an Apprentice to the Block-making Business” included “(34),” as did Moses Brown’s notice concerning a house for sale.

Each of these numbers corresponded to the issue in which the advertisement first appeared. The July 2 edition was issue “NUMB. 234.” The “(34)” in Clark’s and Brown’s advertisements indicated that they ran for the first time. Those with “(33)” were originally published a week earlier in the previous issue, whereas those with “(32)” were making their third appearance. The Russells’ advertisement, with its “(23),” had been running for quite some time.

These numbers aided printers and compositors in determining when to remove advertisements, especially if the advertisers had contracted for a certain number of insertions. While intended primarily for the use of those in the printing office, astute readers may have also consulted them to determine which advertisements were new and which were not. Those who perused the Providence Gazette every week would certainly have recognized advertisements they had seen multiple times, but others who did not peruse the newspaper as frequently did not have that advantage. Those numbers – likely the only portion of the copy not composed by the advertisers – were tools intended to aid those who operated the press, but they also helped readers to distinguish among notices that were new, relatively new, and not new at all.