December 31

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

Providence Gazette (December 31, 1768).

Once more!

In their capacity as the executors of the estate of Joseph Smith of North Providence, Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. In it, they called on creditors to attend a meeting to settle accounts and announced an auction of the deceased’s real estate. The contents of their advertisement did not differ from other estate notices, but the headline set it apart, drawing attention with a proclamation of “Once more!” Eighteenth-century advertisements did not always consist of dense text crowded on the page.

This innovative headline most likely emerged via collaboration between the advertisers and the compositor, perhaps even accidentally. Many eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements did not feature headlines at all. Some treated the advertiser’s name as the headline or otherwise used typography to make it the central focus. The names “Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson” all served as headlines for advertisements, each in italics and a font the same size as “Once more!” In another advertisement, “Gideon Young” appeared in the middle, but in a significantly larger font. Other advertisements used text other than names as headlines. John Carter’s advertisement for an almanac deployed “A NEW EDITION” at the top. A real estate advertisement used “TO BE SOLD” and an advertisement for a runaway slave used “FIVE DOLLARS Reward.” Both were standard formulations when it came to introducing information to newspaper readers.

On the other hand, “Once more!” was different than anything else that usually appeared in the headlines of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. Playful and quirky, it was a precursor to the advertisements that regularly appeared in American newspapers in the nineteenth century. Its departure from standard practices for headlines accompanying advertisements in the 1760s suggests that Olney and Arnold did not merely go through the motions of placing an announcement in the public prints. Instead, they devised copy intended to draw more attention than formulaic language would have garnered. The uniqueness of “Once more!” was calculated to arouse curiosity among readers. That it appeared in italics and larger font was most likely a fortunate accident, considering that the compositor gave other headlines the same treatment. (Recall Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson.”) Still, it signaled the possibilities of combining clever copy with unconventional typography, a strategy that subsequent generations of advertisers and compositors would explore much more extensively.

April 4

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 4 - 4:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 4, 1767).

“Said OLNEY has a few goods remaining yet unsold, which he will sell cheap for cash.”

I chose this advertisement because it piqued my interest. Despite the short nature of the consumer portion it reminded me of something important. Throughout navigating newspapers and collecting advertisements I have seen plenty of advertisements that talked about selling for cash or making deals with good credit. But one thing I never really thought about was the actual currency of colonial America. What was this cash? Was there a uniform currency accepted throughout all the colonies? Was money mostly coins or paper?

I did some research into it. Currency, as it happens, had a great variety in eighteenth-century America. There was no one type of universal payment; instead, there was an astounding diversity. Ron Michener discusses this confusing system of currency in the colonies. “The monetary arrangements in use in America before the Revolution were extremely varied. Each colony had its own conventions, tender laws, and coin ratings, and each issued its own paper money.” The customs regarding payment were specific to each colony. For example, in 1750 Massachusetts prohibited the use of paper money. Anything other than “specie,” gold or silver coinage, was utterly valueless there.

Also, colonists could not travel from New Jersey to Rhode Island, for instance, and expect to buy something using printed currency. They had to engage in some type of exchange prior to payment. In addition, throughout the colonies, foreign currency continued to be accepted as legal payment: “Colonists assigned local currency values to foreign specie coins circulating there in … pounds, shillings and pence.” These coins could include British or Spanish money. This caused a lot of irregularity in transactions because, depending on location, the amount stated could be measured using one type of specie or currency, and the buyer could use another type of payment. For example, a seller could ask for five South Carolina dollars for an item, and the buyer could then pay in Spanish specie. There must have been a lot of confusion and mathematical calculations happening in that era!

Over the course of my exploration I realized that there were many different types of money exchanged for goods and which coins or bills were accepted really depended on the location and year, The use of cash in America is not as simple as I originally thought; it has a long and complicated history.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Extensive networks of credit facilitated the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Even as merchants and shopkeepers attempted to incite greater demand (as Joseph Olney, Jr., did when he announced he had “a few goods remaining yet unsold), their advertisements testified to generous credit they extended to customers who obtained the “baubles of Britain” from them. Merchants and shopkeepers were middlemen and –women, often caught in expanding transatlantic webs of credit themselves. Note that Olney justified his decision to call in the debts owed to him by explaining that doing so was a necessity so that he, in turn, would be “enabled to discharge all demands that lay against himself.” Just as his customers owed him money, Olney was indebted to those who supplied him with the merchandise he sold.

Like many others who placed similar notices in the 1760s, Olney seized an opportunity to generate more revenue by following his request for payment with a brief promotion of his current inventory. In almost every example, the advertisers suggested that they were no longer in the business of extending credit to customers. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem, especially considering that earlier in the advertisement Olney threatened legal action against anyone who “refuse[d] to comply with this reasonable request” for payment. Because Olney wanted to spare himself the hassle of making “trouble at next June court,” he indicated that he would sell his remaining goods “for cash.” He made no mention of any form of credit, whether “by Note, Book Account, or otherwise.”

Olney’s advertisement was much less striking than many others that included extensive lists of merchandise or made elaborate appeals to potential customers. It served a necessary purpose, however, as he went about operating his business, just as similar advertisements did for his counterparts and competitors throughout the colonies.