What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“He will open a Place for Sale of Goods to be known by the Name of The Silent Auction-Room.”
When he established the “Silent Auction-Room” in Boston in the spring of 1773, A. Bowman did not even pretend politeness toward his competitors in his advertisements. In a notice that he placed in the April 8 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, he mocked the advertisements placed by three of his competitors. All three advertisements appeared in that issue, making for easy reference for readers, though Bowman previously encountered them in other newspapers.
The auctioneer stated that he would “receive and sell all Sorts of Merchandise, House-Furniture,” and other goods. However, “‘Houses, Lands and Shipping,’ he does not pretend to sell,” he snidely comments, “because he is apprehensive it would be very difficult to get them up Stairs.” Bowman quoted directly from William Greenleaf’s advertisement. His rival stated, “In the Sale of Houses, Lands, Shipping, Merchandize, Household Furniture, &c. &c. my Employers may depend on my exerting myself for their Interest.”
The cantankerous auctioneer then declared that “Goods from ‘Servants and Minors’ will be received if they are properly authorized to deliver them.” In this instance, he taunted Martin Bicker, a broker who handled “all sorts of English and Scotch Goods [and] Household Furniture … to as good Advantage as can be done at any Auction whatever.” Bicker proclaimed that “the Public may rest assured, that no Goods will be received by him of any Servants or Minors.” Bowman established a different policy for his “Silent Auction-Room.” He took another jab at Bicker when he asserted that “His ‘Books’ shall be kept in good Order, so that it gives him no Concern whether they are ‘liable to Inspection,’ or not.” Before noting that he did not accept goods from servants or minors, presumably to avoid peddling stolen items, Bicker confided that “his Books are not liable to Inspection.” Bowman treated such lack of transparency with skepticism.
The final portion of Bowman’s advertisement, a short poem, most directly addressed the source of his anger and frustration. Joseph Russell, the proprietor of an auction room on Queen Street, previously published an advertisement that concluded with a poem that promoted his own business and mocked the demise of Bowman’s auction house. In addition to the poem, Russell announced that he “received a License from the Gentlemen Select-Men, to be an Auctioneer for the Town of Boston, conformable to the late Act for that Purpose.” Similarly, Greenleaf trumpeted that the “Gentlemen Select-Men … approbated me to officiate as one of the Vendue-Masters [or auctioneers] for this Town.” Bicker carefully described himself as a broker and made clear to prospective clients that his services rivaled those offered by auctioneers.
Bowman apparently did not receive a license. In advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on March 22 and in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on March 25, he referred to his business as “BOWMAN’s Dying Auction-Room.” His advertisement in the March 29 edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured a thick black border, a symbol of death and mourning in early American print culture. Bowman lamented that his auction room “is soon to be sacrificed for the Good of the Province” and that he will be legally dead, (the taking away a Man’s Bread or his Life being synonymous) before another News-Paper comes out.” That advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette on the same day, though without the mourning border that clearly indicated how Bowman felt about the situation. That explains why Bowman described himself as the “late Auctioneer” at the “Dead Auction-Room” in his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on April 8. That he proposed opening a “Silent Auction-Room” suggests he identified some sort of loophole to defy the licensing act, perhaps as a broker rather than an auctioneer. In subsequent advertisements, he noted that he sold goods on commission.
Russell observed Bowman’s commentary in his advertisements, prompting him to allude to it in the poem he included in his own notice: “While some this Stage of Action quit, / And Dying advertise; / For Cash the Buyers here may meet / With constant fresh Supplies.” Not done with his own editorializing about his competitor, Russell added another stanza: “For Favors past, due Thanks return’d; / New Bargains, cheap and dear, / At the Old Place may still be found / J. RUSSELL, Auctioneer.” Russell pointedly declared that his business continued at a location familiar to residents of Boston.
In response, Bowman published his own poem at the end of his advertisement. “A License granted! pray for what? / To show their Parts in Rhyme; / But hear the Tale the Dead will rise, / And that in proper Time.” Bowman did not think much of Russell’s poetry nor his abilities as an auctioneer. At the same time, he pledged to revive his business, a footnote indicating that the public could anticipate that happening “When the expected Ships discharge their Cargoes.” Bowman critiqued the licensing act in a final stanza: “Fair LIBERTY thou Idol great, / How narrow is thy Sphere! / Ye Men of Sense say where she dwells, / For sure she reigns not here.” As colonizers in Boston debated the extent that Parliament infringed on their liberties, Bowman asserted that the new act, a local ordinance, curtailed liberty in the city.
By and large, auctioneers and other advertisers usually ignored their competitors. The angry and defiant Bowman, however, did not do so. Instead, he mocked several of the auctioneers and brokers who advertised in Boston’s newspapers, parroting their notices when he taunted them. He also continued to protest the new licensing act that caused him to close his auction room. In addition to promoting his next endeavor, the “Silent Auction-Room,” he used advertisements as a means of disseminating his commentary on the state of affairs in Boston.