What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A great variety of articles in the highest taste.”
In his efforts to sell his merchandise to prospective customers in Charleston and nearby town in the fall of 1773, James McCall emphasized the array of choices available at his shop. Like many other purveyors of consumer goods, he listed many of his wares in a newspaper advertisement. His merchandise included everything from “superfine bright scarlet broad-cloth” and “rich black Genoa velvet” to “elegant china” and “neat portmantua and other trunks” to “handsome tall candlesticks” and chamber and street lamps.” He stocked “Morocco slippers” in a range of colors, including “red, blue, green, and yellow.” Similarly, customers could choose “mens velvet caps, with and without tassels,” to suit their tastes.
McCall introduced consumers to his catalog of goods by describing his inventory as a “very large ASSORTMENT” and explaining that he included only certain items in his advertisement. The list commenced with “AMONG OTHER ARTICLES” and concluded with a promise of “a great variety of articles in the highest taste.” The word “variety” also appeared elsewhere in the advertisement, “a variety of pewter, copper, tin, and iron ware” and “writing, printing, and [a] variety of paper,” to encourage prospective customers to imagine the items on his shelves and visit his shop to see for themselves. In addition, “&c.” (an abbreviation for et cetera), deployed more than once in the advertisement, suggested even more choices. In case that did not lure readers, the shopkeeper expected “Further supplies in the next vessels” to arrive in port.
The competition for customers sometimes manifested itself in competitions for placing the longest newspaper advertisements. Listing dozens of items and occupying approximately one-third of a column, McCall’s advertisement matched others that ran in the October 11 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and the October 12 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. On other occasions, however, that advertisement would have seemed brief in comparison to those placed by other merchants and shopkeepers. In listing so many choices, McCall and others may not have merely attempted to meet consumer demand. Instead, they may have intended for their catalogs of goods to incite greater demand by demonstrating many of the available choices and prompting prospective customers to envision selecting among them.