June 15

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

Jun 15 - 6:15:1769 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (June 15, 1769).

Half a Dollar per Dozen, it being the lowest that I can get them to yet.”

Two advertisers offered lemons for sale in the June 15, 1769, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter. One advertisement simply stated: “JUST IMPORTED, and to be Sold by Jonathan Snelling, At his Store on Treat’s Wharf, A few Boxes of choice Lisbon Lemons.” The other advertisement was more elaborate. Opening with a headline that proclaimed “Fresh Lisbon LEMMONS,” John Crosby then went into detail about the low prices that he managed to finagle for his customers in Boston and its environs.

Even before publishing this advertisement, Crosby was familiar in the local marketplace. He advertised frequently, not only in the Boston Weekly News-Letter (co-published with Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette) but also in the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy (co-published with Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette). Usually short, his advertisements always advised potential customers to seek him out “At the Basket of Lemmons” (his preferred spelling) in the South End. Between his easily recognizable shop sign and regularly placing advertisements in multiple newspapers, Crosby made sure that residents of the busy port were aware of his citrus venture.

Yet he further enhanced the visibility of his business by emphasizing the prices of his fruit. Shopkeepers and other purveyors of goods infrequently listed prices in their advertisements in the 1760s, making it all the more notable that Crosby set the price for lemons at “Half a Dollar per Dozen.” Underscoring that this was a particular bargain, he informed readers that was “the lowest I can get them to yet.” He also had “Very good China Oranges at 24 Shillings per Dozen.” This was not the extent of his attention to prices. He also pledged to continue inserting “a Weekly Account in this Paper as usual, of the lowest Price I can Sell [lemons] for.” His marketing strategy depended not only on constantly presenting his name and the “Basket of Lemmons” to potential customers but also providing regular updates about prices so consumers could assess deals and bargains for themselves.

Comparing the advertisements for lemons placed by Snelling and Crosby demonstrates that not all eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for consumer goods were alike. While it might be tempting to dismiss them as mere announcements, their variations testify to the efforts advertisers made to incite demand and the innovations they adopted to distinguish their businesses from their competitors. Although brief, Snelling’s advertisement did make appeals to freshness and quality, noting that his “choice” lemons had been “JUST IMPORTED.” Crosby much more elaborately leveraged price as he endeavored to sell his lemons. He achieved impressive visibility for his business with his weekly account of prices in his advertisements.

March 9

GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (March 9, 1769).

“LEMMONS new Fruit.”

Many kinds of fruit were considered a rare luxury in the eighteenth century, primarily only available for the wealthy. This was a direct result of where fruit grew and how people got it. Colonists had two options when it came to acquiring fruit: locally grown or imported, both of which were only available in season.

Colonists enjoyed fruit they introduced to North America, like apples and peaches, as well as indigenous plants that they had added to their diet, like strawberries, cherries, and grapes. Even with this variety, colonists had to settle for what could be grown in their specific climate or a particular time of year. John Crosby advertised another kind of fruit: lemons. As Mark Ziarko explains, “Naturally, tropical species like citrus fruits and pineapples became the zenith of the colonial fruit hierarchy. If someone really wanted to demonstrate their wealth, these imported fruits were the way to go.”

Because fruit was expensive to acquire, it became a form of showing status. Fresh fruit could be displayed on a fruit dish as decoration and as a status symbol. People who could afford fruit wanted to show it off to others. Fresh fruit was not always a practical purchase because it could be expensive and did not have a long shelf life. For colonial Americans, eating fresh fruit was more than just a tasty and healthy snack; it was a way to show wealth and class.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

John Crosby set up shop “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons, South-End” in Boston. In an era before standardized street numbers, colonists relied on various landmarks, including shop signs, to give directions and indicate locations. Many merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others purveyors of consumer goods and services erected signs to mark where they conducted business. Some tied the images they selected directly to their occupation, as John Crosby, “Lemmon-Trader,” did with his “Sign of the Basket of Lemmons,” but others chose distinctive images that did not necessarily testify to the merchandise they offered for sale.

Some advertisers did not incur the expense of having their own sign painted or carved. Instead, they treated signs posted by neighbors as landmarks to help guide prospective customers to their own shops. On the same day that Crosby inserted his advertisement in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Elias Dupee announced upcoming auctions at his “New AUCTION-ROOM” in the Boston Chronicle. Lest potential bidders confuse his establishment with any of the several other auction houses in the bustling port city, he offered extensive directions that included a shop sign: “Between the Swing and Draw-bridge, near the Golden-key, over Mr John Dupee Mathematical Instrument-maker’s shop.” Similarly, Hammatt and Brown sold imported groceries and housewares “near the Sign of the Cornfield, in Union-street.” According to his advertisement in the same issue of Boston Evening-Post as Hammatt and Brown’s notice, John Hunt hawked “a good Assortment of Ironmongery, Braizery, Cutlery and Pewter” at a shop located “next Door Northward of the Heart and Crown, in Cornhill.” The Heart and Crown happened to be the emblem that marked the printing shop operated by T. and J. Fleet, the publishers of the Boston Evening-Post. The image also appeared in the masthead of the newspaper, augmenting its familiarity to colonists in Boston.

Crosby’s advertisement does more than reveal what kinds of goods were offered for sale in Boston as spring approached in 1769. It also testifies to the sights colonists glimpsed as they traversed the streets of the city. Shop signs, like the “Basket of Lemmons,” decorated buildings while also aiding both residents and visitors as they made their way through the busy port. Some advertisers adopted the images depicted via their shop signs as brands that represented their businesses, but those signs first served other purposes in the visual landscape of Boston and other cities.