September 4

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 2, 1771).

“Public Vendue, At the Auction-Room in Queen street.”

Colonial consumers encountered advertisements for all sorts of goods when they perused the pages of the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers.  In the September 2, 1771, edition, for instance, Samuel Austin advertised “A large and compleat Assortment of English, India and Scotch Goods” recently imported from London.  Similarly, Joshua Gardner hawked “A fine Assortment of Fall and Winter Goods” received in vessels from London and Bristol.  Several other merchants and shopkeepers placed advertisements for new merchandise available at their stores and warehouses.

Consumers, however, had other options for acquiring goods.  Some preferred to purchase at vendue or auction where they might get better bargains than buying retail.  Joseph Russell, proprietor of “the Auction-Room in Queen street,” regularly placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and other local newspapers to advise consumers of items soon up for bids.  In a notice that ran next to Austin’s advertisement, Russell promoted “A great Variety of English GOODS.”  He listed several different kinds of textiles as well as “Silk & linen Handkerchiefs” and “Mens & Womens worsted Hose,” many of the same items that Austin, Gardner, and others enumerated in their advertisements.  He concluded that litany with a promise of “a variety of other Goods,” encouraging prospective bidders to check out his auction before shopping elsewhere.

Russell also facilitated the market for secondhand goods, advertising an upcoming auction “At the House of Mr. Benjamin White.”  In particular, that auction featured “A Variety of HOUSE FURNITURE belonging to a Gentleman moved into the Country,” including a clock, a mahogany bureau, and looking glasses.  The inventory also included housewares, such as “a compleat Set of Burnt China for Tea-Table” and brass kettles.  Purchasing secondhand goods at auction or estate sales provided consumers an alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution.  Collectively, advertisements placed by merchants, shopkeepers, and auctioneers alerted colonists to the many options available to them and the multiple trajectories for shopping and obtaining goods of all sorts.

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.

June 5

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (June 3, 1771).

“News Carrier.”

John Green and Joseph Russell, printers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, had more content than would fit in the June 3, 1771, edition of their newspaper.  They inserted a note advising that “Advertisements omitted, will be in our next.”  Even with limited space, advertising accounted for the entire final page as well as half a column on the third page.  The printers also managed to squeeze one advertisement each on the first and second pages.  In so doing, they selected advertisements that promoted their own endeavors.

The front page consisted almost entirely of news about “the Gentlemen, who were returned to serve as Members of the Honorable House of Representatives” for the colony as well as the “Gentlemen … elected Councellors for the Ensuing Year.”  A single advertisement, however, ran across the bottom of the page.  In it, Silent Wilde, “News Carrier,” advised current and prospective customers that he would continue to “ride once every Week from Boston to Northampton,Deerfield,” and other towns in the western portion of the colony in order “to supply Gentlemen … with one of the Boston News-Papers.”  Green and Russell had a particular interest in publishing Wilde’s advertisement since recruiting customers in western towns meant more subscribers for their newspaper.  In turn, greater circulation of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy made the publication more attractive to advertisers.  Green and Russell gave Wilde’s advertisement a privileged place, increasing the likelihood that readers would take note of it.

An advertisement at the bottom of the last column on the second page similarly advanced Green and Russell’s interests.  “J. RUSSELL, Auctioneer,” announced a sale “at the Auction Room in Queen-street” scheduled for the next day.  That “J. RUSSELL” was none other than Joseph Russell, the printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  Throughout most of their partnership, Green oversaw the printing office while Russell operated an auction house.  Advertisements for Russell’s auctions frequently appeared in the newspaper his partner ran, often receiving special consideration in terms of placement.  In most instance, that meant they appeared first among the advertisements.  In this case, Green interspersed Russell’s advertisement among news items, making sure to find space for it while also increasing the likelihood that readers who otherwise passed over advertising would spot the notice when they perused the news.

The placement and order of other advertisements in the newspaper did not seem to follow any particular principle beyond forming columns of equal length.  Advertisements for a “News Carrier” and an “Auction Room” owned by the partners who printed the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, on the other hand, received special treatment.  The printers used their position to their advantage when choosing how to present those advertisements to readers.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (June 3, 1771).

May 18

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

Providence Gazette (May 18, 1771).

“Just imported in the Snow Tristram, Capt. Shand.”

The arrival of the ship Providence in Providence on May 1, 1771, had a significant impact on the contents of the next several issues of the Providence Gazette.  Captain Phineas Gilbert carried a variety of letters and newspapers that contained information not previously available in the colony.  John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, selected excerpts to publish for his readers.  The Providence also transported consumer goods that soon found their way into local shops.  Several merchants advertised that their inventory now included merchandise “imported in the Ship Providence.”  No matter where they looked in the Providence Gazette, readers encountered content connected to the Providence.

In the time that advertisements for goods shipped via the Providence continued to run in the newspaper, other vessels arrived with more news and their own cargoes.  Immediately below the masthead in the May 18 edition of the Providence Gazette, Carter noted that he reprinted news he received “By the Snow Tristram, Captain SHAND, arrived here from London.”  A cluster of new advertisements made reference to the same vessel.  Amos Throop proclaimed that he sold “Fresh DRUGS and MEDICINES. Just imported in the Tristram, Captain Shand, from London,” echoing Carter’s attribution to his source for the news.  Joseph Russell and William Russell similarly announced that they stocked a “LARGE and compleat Assortment of English and Hard Ware GOODS” that crossed the Atlantic on the Tristram.  On another page of the same issue, an advertisement the Russells initially placed two weeks earlier once again promoted “a large Assortment of GOODS, suitable for the Season” that arrived via the Providence.  The partnership of “Nicholas, Joseph & Moses Brown, In Company,” also ran two advertisements, one for goods transported on the Tristram and the other for goods transported on the Providence.

Those advertisements meant greater revenues for the printer, but they also suggested more choices for prospective customers who, then as now, often equated newer with better.  That so many advertisements for consumer goods mentioned which ships carried those goods may seem quaint to modern readers, but that detail provided important context for eighteenth-century consumers who were less likely to pick over items that lingered on shelves for months than to browse new items that recently arrived.

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.