August 24

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

Providence Gazette (August 24, 1771).

“Just imported by Joseph and William Russell.”

In the early 1770s, each edition of the Providence Gazette concluded with a colophon in which John Carter, the printer, solicited paid notices.  “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay),” the colophon advised, “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings.”  That fee covered setting type the first time an advertisement ran and the space it occupied in three consecutive issues.  Advertisers could also pay additional fees for their notices to make additional appearances.

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, did not need the invitation in the colophon to prompt them to submit advertisements to Carter’s printing office.  They regularly placed notices promoting a variety of commodities and consumer goods.  Indeed, they advertised so frequently that sometimes they published new advertisements before older ones finished their runs.  That was the case in the August 24, 1771 edition of the Providence Gazette.  That issue featured two advertisements placed by the Russells, a new one on the third page and another that already appeared multiple times on the fourth page.  That made them the only purveyors of goods with more than one advertisement in that issue, not the first time the merchants found themselves in that position.

Did advertising work?  The Russells believed that it did.  Otherwise, they would not have paid to publish advertisement after advertisement in the Providence Gazette.  They also seem to have made some effort to draw attention to their advertisements by varying the formats rather than assuming that prospective customers would read them just because they appeared in the public prints.  Deploying a particularly unusual format, their names, which served as a headline of sorts, appeared halfway through the advertisement on the third page of the August 24 edition.  That distinguished their advertisement from others in the same issue.  In their advertisements on the fourth page, the merchants divided their inventory into two columns instead of a single paragraph of dense text, making it easier for readers to peruse the contents.  The Russells likely thought (or learned from experience) that advertising worked when designed with some creativity and variation.

August 3

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

Providence Gazette (August 3, 1771).

“Just imported … by Joseph and William Russell.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of Providence’s most prominent merchants, made shrewd use of the public prints to keep their names … and their merchandise … before the eyes of prospective customers.  Some merchants and shopkeepers advertised only when they received new shipments of goods, running their notices for three or four weeks.  The Russells, on the other hand, continuously updated their marketing efforts, inserting new advertisements in the Providence Gazette when they discontinued others.

For four weeks in the summer of 1771, they ran an advertisement for “A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods, Ironmongery, Brasiery, Cutlery, Haberdashery, [and] Stationary” that they “Imported from London, in the Ship Providence, and in the Snow Tristram.”  Two weeks after that notice ran for the final time, they inserted a new advertisement, a much lengthier one that listed a variety of textiles, housewares, and other goods in two columns.  The Russells stated that these items were “Just imported from London, in the last ships.”  Savvy readers probably assumed that the Russells did not advertise merchandise that actually just arrived (or else they would have specified which vessels delivered their inventory) but instead goods received many weeks earlier via the Providence and Tristram.

That purveyors of goods sometimes hedged a bit in their advertisements was not any more of a surprise in the eighteenth century than today.  The Russells did not advance any outright misrepresentations as they attempted to garner new attention for their inventory by publishing an advertisement that differed so significantly from the shorter one that previously appeared in the Providence Gazette.  Had they continued inserting the earlier advertisement, they risked readers skipping over content that looked too familiar.  The new notice, lengthier with a different format, allowed them to highlight particular items even as they promoted all of their merchandise more generally.  The Russells invested in repetition, enhancing the visibility and reputation of their business by keeping it in the public prints.

July 20

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

Providence Gazette (July 20, 1771).

“A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, regularly advertised in the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s.  They placed their notices for short periods, sometimes running more than one at a time.  Consider their marketing efforts during the summer of 1771.  On June 29, they inserted an advertisement to inform prospective customers that they now stocked “A VERY large and neat Assortment of English Goods, Ironmongery, Brasiery, Cutlery, Haberdashery, Stationary,” and other goods imported from London.  That advertisement ran for four consecutive weeks before being discontinued on July 27.  Two weeks after first placing that notice, the Russells placed another advertisement, that one for “THIRTY Barrels of choice Connecticut Pork” as well as corn and textiles.  It also ran for four weeks, appearing in the July 13 and 20 editions of the Providence Gazette with the other advertisement.  On July 27, the Russells published just one advertisement, but on August 3, the last issue for the advertisement about pork, they ran a new advertisement for imported goods.  It also appeared for four weeks.

When it came to advertising, the Russells made deliberate choices.  According to the rates that John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted in the colophon, “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings.”  The Russells did not opt to have their notices run for the minimum amount of time before removing them.  Instead, they added an additional week to allow for greater exposure, but then retired their advertisements and devised new notices.  Doing so allowed them to keep their enterprise visible to prospective customers without risking readers dismissing advertisements that became too familiar.  Did advertising in eighteenth-century newspapers work?  The Russells seemed to believe that advertising was indeed effective, at least when properly managed, or else they would not have placed so many notices in the Providence Gazette and incurred the expenses of doing so.

May 4

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

Providence Gazette (May 4, 1771).

“They have just arrived from London, in the Ship Providence, Captain Gilbert, a large Assortment of GOODS.”

The arrival of ships in port meant not only new goods in stores and shops but also new advertisements in colonial newspapers.  Such was the case in Providence in the spring of 1771.  The Providence delivered goods to merchants and shopkeepers.  In turn, they placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette.  Joseph Russell and William Russell published a notice to “INFORM their Customers, that they have just arrived from London, in the Ship Providence, Captain Gilbert, a large Assortment of GOODS, suitable for the Season, which are now opened and ready for Sale.”  John Brown placed a similar advertisement for a “compleat Assortment of European and India GOODS.”  He also reported that he imported his wares “from LONDON … In the Ship Providence, Phineas Gilbert, Master.”  Brown and the Russells placed their advertisements very shortly after the arrival of the Providence, hoping to convince customers that new merchandise meant more desirable merchandise.  The Providence had been in port for only three days, according to news accounts elsewhere in the May 4 edition of the Providence Gazette.

In addition to “European and India GOODS,” Captain Gilbert also delivered news, some of it concerning events in England and elsewhere in Europe and some of it concerning other vessels that made transatlantic voyages.  For instance, Gilbert reported that the Providence “met the Snow Tristram, Capt. Shard, of this Port, in the River as he came down” shortly after departing London on February 6.  Families with seamen working aboard the Tristram and merchants with business interests connected to the vessel must have been relieved to learn that it arrived safely in the Thames and continued toward London.  Furthermore, “Capt. Shand was to leave London the 10th of March, and may daily be expected” in Providence.  Gilbert also reported on three other ships the Providence encountered during its transatlantic journey, noting “all well on board each Vessel.”  More extensive news items also arrived via the Providence.  The printer, John Carter, reserved the front page for news from London “By the Ship Thomas, Capt. Davis, arrived at Boston” previously printed in newspapers in that city, but Gilbert and the Providence almost certainly carried other news “From a late London Paper” that Carter inserted in the Providence Gazette.

The arrival of the Providence in Providence on May 1, 1771, generated various kinds of content for the next edition of the Providence Gazette.  Among the advertisements, merchants hawked consumer goods delivered on the ship.  The printer selected items from London newspapers carried by the captain to reprint for local readers.  The news also included updates about the progress of several vessels crossing the Atlantic, providing welcome updates for both families and merchants.

February 23

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

Providence Gazette (February 23, 1771).

“Brass candlesticks.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell regularly placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Like many other purveyors of goods, they listed some of the many items in stock at their store, including “Mens silk hose,” “Womens newest fashioned furr’d hats,” “Brass candlesticks,” and “Looking glasses.”  In so doing, they demonstrated to consumers the wide array of choices available to them.  The descriptions of some items further underscored that prospective customers could choose according to their own tastes and desires, such as “SCarlet, claret, tyrean, mixed, drab, cinnamon, green & blue broadcloths” and “Sewing silks of all colours.”  The Russells’ notice in the Providence Gazette constituted a catalog of their merchandise in the format of a newspaper advertisement.

In addition to making an appeal to consumer choice, the Russells also deployed graphic design to draw attention to their advertisement and aid readers in navigating it.  Their notice featured two columns of goods with a line down the center.  Only one or two items appeared on each line, creating white space that made the entire advertisement easier to read.  In contrast, most other items in the Providence Gazette (and other colonial newspapers) ran in dense blocks of text.  News items almost invariably took that form.  Most advertisements did as well, including the majority that enumerated the many items offered for sale.  As a result, the design of the Russells’ advertisement likely caused readers to notice it before they actively set about reading it, encouraging them to look more closely.  When they did read it, they could scan the contents more efficiently than working through a lengthy and dense paragraph.  Primitive by modern standards, the two-column design distinguished the Russells’ advertisement from most other items in the newspaper.

That design cost more money since newspaper printers charged by the amount of space advertisements occupied rather than the number of words.  The Russells apparently considered the additional expense worth the investment if it increased the number of readers who engaged with their advertisement.

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 AND Wm. RUSSELL.”

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).

“POT-ASH, PEARL-ASH, and SALTS.”

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.

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[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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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]

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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!

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[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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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.