September 1

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (September 1, 1773).

“He expects in a general Assortment of other Goods, by the first Ships from London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow.”

Abraham Usher wanted prospective customers to know that he had new inventory at his store on Front Street in Philadelphia.  In an advertisement that ran in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on September 1, 1773, the merchant informed readers that he “just imported, in the Charming Nancy, Captain Tyrie, and the Caesar, Captain Miller, from LONDON, a large and general Assortment of Woollens, suitable for the Fall Sale” as well as “an Assortment of Birmingham and Sheffield Wares.”  Merchants and shopkeepers often opened their advertisements with a narrative about which ships transported their merchandise across the Atlantic.  Stephen Collins began his own advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette with “JUST IMPORTED, in the Caesar, Captain Miller, from London.”  This technique allowed consumers to make their own assessments about how recently the sellers acquired their goods, knowing from their own observation, word of mouth, or the entries from the customs house published in the newspaper when vessels arrived in port.

Usher did not merely promote goods that he recently stocked at his store.  He also attempted to create a sense of anticipation around the imminent arrival of new inventory.  He confided that he “expects in a general Assortment of other Goods, by the first Ships from London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow.”  Customers did not need to wait to glimpse another advertisement in the public prints before visiting Usher’s store.  There was a good chance he would have even more new inventory on hand whenever shopkeepers and others contacted him about acquiring goods for the fall season.  Usher likely hoped that previewing those arrivals would give him an advantage over his competitors.  Most did not advertise merchandise that had not yet arrived, but that was not the case for all of them.  William Miller, who also placed notices about goods “suitable for the approaching season” in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal, similarly stated that he “daily expects a further supply in the first vessels from London, Liverpool and Bristol.”  Given that every newspaper published in Philadelphia at the time came out only once a week, Miller suggested that he could have new wares on the shelves before prospective customers even saw the next edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette or the Pennsylvania Journal.  As other merchants highlighted goods recently added to their inventory, Usher and Miller sought to eclipse their advertisements with promises of even larger selections that would soon be available to customers.

January 16

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 16, 1769).

“As she is a Stranger, will make it her constant Study to give intire Satisfaction.”

When milliner Margaret Wills migrated from Dublin to New York she placed an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to announce that she now received customers “in the Broadway, Next Door to Richard Nicol’s, Esq.” She briefly described the services she offered, noting that she made “all Sorts of Caps, Hats, Bonnets, Cloaks, and all other Articles in the Millinary Way.” She incorporated some of the most common appeals made by milliners and others who advertised consumer goods and services in eighteenth-century America: price and fashion. She stated that she charged “the lowest Prices” and that her hats and garments represented “the newest and most elegant Fashion.” In addition, she provided instruction to “young Ladies” interested in learning a “great Variety of Works” related to her trade.

Wills devoted half of her advertisement, however, to addressing her status as a newcomer in the busy port. Unlike many of her competitors who had served local residents for years and cultivated relationships, she was unfamiliar to colonists who perused her advertisement. She acknowledged that she was “a Stranger” in the city, but strove to turn that to her advantage. To build her clientele, she pledged “to make it her constant Study to give intire Satisfaction to those who please to honor her with their Commands.” In so doing, she advanced customer service as a cornerstone of her business. Its allure had the potential to attract prospective clients for an initial visit; following through on this vow could cement relationships between new customers and the milliner “Just arrived from DUBLIN.” It might even lead to word-of-mouth recommendations, but Wills determined that she needed to start with a notice in the public prints to enhance her visibility before she could rely on any satisfied customers circulating any sort of buzz. Her advertisement operated as a letter of introduction to the entire community.

July 21

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

Jul 21 - 7:21:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (July 21, 1767).

“A great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.”

Like several other merchants and shopkeepers in colonial Charleston, John Davies advertised in more than one of the city’s newspapers. A variation of today’s advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for instance, previously appeared in both that newspaper and the South-Carolina and American General Gazette a month earlier. This version added a nota bene informing potential customers that Davies had augmented his stock with “A very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” On their own, these updates deceptively suggested that consumers could acquire merchandise fresh off a ship that had just arrived in port.

Those who consulted the shipping news, however, discovered a rather different story. No ship under the command of a Captain Gordon had arrived in port during the past week, so the nota bene did not deliver the absolutely “freshest Advices” promised in the newspaper’s masthead. Indeed, the June 30 issue indicated that the “Ship Mary, James Gordon” from London had arrived on June 26, nearly a month before today’s advertisement promoted the “very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” In that issue, Davies’ advertisement appeared immediately to the left of the shipping news. Readers could verify the information communicated in the larger font used for the nota bene with a quick glance. Davies and the compositor had speedily updated the advertisement.

The revised notice appeared in the next three issues, the verity of the nota bene reduced with each passing week. Careful readers of the July 21 issue would have noticed that Captain Gordon and the Mary had been cleared for departure and a return trip to London by the Customs House on July 18. Careful readers would have also recognized Davies’ advertisement from previous issues, realizing that the information in the nota bene needed to be tempered by acknowledging that the notice had been reprinted several times over the past month. Such careful attention to the shipping news likely would not have been necessary for potential customers to approach this advertisement with some skepticism. Readers were accustomed to advertisements being reprinted for weeks and sometimes months. They would have learned to adjust their expectations when advertisers made claims about goods that had “just arrived” or had been “just imported.”