February 6

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

Feb 6 - 2:6:1770 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (February 6, 1770).

“WHOEVER sends Goods … may be assured of the Fidelity of the Master of said Hall.”

In February 1770, John Gerrish “(And COMPANY.)” expanded his efforts to address prospective customers in a regional market when he published an advertisement for his “Auction-Hall” in the Essex Gazette just days after placing an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. He continued to insert advertisements in several of the newspapers printed in Boston.

Although Gerrish tended to submit the same copy to local printing offices, the advertisement he drafted for the Essex Gazette was quite different from the one in the Providence Gazette. He did not provide details about auctions for readers in Rhode Island, instead focusing on “Wholesale and Retail” sales for a “GREAT Variety of ARTICLES.” For readers of the Essex Gazette, however, he extended an invitation to “Public-Vendues” or auctions “held Weekly in said Auction-Hall; but chiefly on TUESDAYS, and THURSDAYS.” He also encouraged prospective bidders to become clients, asserting that “WHOEVER sends Goods … to be Sold by private or public Sale, may be assured of the Fidelity of the Master of said Hall.” In other words, Gerrish recognized that clients took risks when they entrusted goods to him to sell; he sought to alleviate anxiety that he might give deals to close associates who did business with him regularly and, in the process, deprive clients of the best possible prices they could have achieved for their goods. When he pledged “Fidelity” to his clients, Gerrish vowed to operate in their best interests rather than underselling for his own benefit. He was not the only auctioneer in Boston to address such issues of trust in newspapers advertisements in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

To further entice “Country GENTLEMEN, Travelers, and Traders” from beyond Boston to examine the wares or attend a vendue at his auction house, Gerrish added a nota bene that advised they could find “Very Good Lodgings and Boarding … in Court-Square, opposite to AUCTION HALL.” In addition to seeing to the comfort of prospective bidders, buyers, and clients, that establishment also provided “very good Keeping for Horses.”

Gerrish had been advertising in multiple newspapers in Boston for years, but early in 1770 he experimented with placing notices in newspapers published in nearby towns. He likely hoped to expand his client base by enlarging the market for his services as a “Public Vendue-Master” and interest in the “New & Second-Hand” goods available at his auction house. He certainly increased his investment in advertising, hoping that it would result in more business and higher revenues at an auction house that competed with several others in Boston.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“A Genteel Lodging and Boarding for a single Gentleman, Enquire in Tradd-street, of JAMES KING.”

This is the entire advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. However, this is why I picked it. Although only fourteen words, this advertisement poses a lot of questions, the most important being the usage of the word “genteel.” What did “genteel” mean in eighteenth-century America?

The Oxford English Dictionary states that genteel means “Belonging to or included among the gentry; of a rank above the commonalty.” Other definitions similarly state “Appropriate to persons of quality,” “characteristic of persons of quality,” and “suited to the station of a gentleman or gentlewoman.” When describing dwellings, food, meals, and hospitality – like the “Lodging and Boarding” in this advertisement – “genteel” means “Stylish, fashionably elegant or sumptuous.” This is important because it suggests that King advertised to someone who was looking for accommodations appropriate for his social ranking or perhaps even hoping to move up in status.

“Genteel” also referred to how people acted in addition to describing consumer goods and “Lodging and Boarding.” The Oxford English Dictionary also includes these definitions: “Having the habits characteristic of superior station” and “Of behavior: courteous, polite, obliging.” According to Cathy Hellier at Colonial Williamsburg, “Not only how something was said, but when it was said, were reflective of the social positions of the speakers.” This advertisement, regardless of its short length, shows the importance placed on social status in colonial and Revolutionary America.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Inviting undergraduates to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project opens up a variety of opportunities, not only for the students but also for me as an instructor and a scholar. Through their own efforts on the project, students often convince me to look at familiar material in new ways.

Take today’s featured advertisement. When Jonathan submitted it to me for consideration I told him that I would approve it because it fit within the parameters of the project and adhered to its methodology, but I also suggested that it seemed a bit sparse, especially compared to many of the more substantial advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Although I approved King’s advertisement for “Lodging and Boarding,” I recommended that Jonathan consider alternatives and let him know that he could switch to another advertisement if he experienced too much difficulty examining this one. Jonathan assured me that he would find something interesting and significant to say about King’s advertisement. I was both curious and anxious when he began independently pursuing his research and writing the first draft of today’s entry. I had no idea how he might approach what appeared to be such a simple advertisement.

I was pleasantly surprised when Jonathan submitted his initial analysis of the advertisement. In focusing on a single word, “genteel,” he opened a portal to investigating eighteenth-century understandings of status, personal comportment, and social mobility. He originally relied solely on Cathy Hellier’s article, but I suggested that if he really wanted to understand the meaning of “genteel” in the eighteenth century that he also needed to incorporate the OED’s treatment of the word. This was a new source for Jonathan, at least as far as conducting historical research was concerned. In the following draft, he included one of the entries from the OED. Working together, we fleshed out his revised entry and better harnessed the OED’s extensive treatment of “genteel” to introduce readers to the many shades of meaning associated with the word in early America.

This was a learning experience for me as much as it was for Jonathan. I spend so much time examining eighteenth-century sources that the word “genteel” did not even register with me when I initially reviewed today’s advertisement. As a student interested but not immersed in early American history, on the other hand, Jonathan did not take “genteel” for granted. By training different eyes on the same advertisement, he raised important questions about an advertisement that turned out not to be as simple as I initially thought. In so doing, he implicitly made an argument that I regularly advance: advertisements that appear to be little more than notices often turn out to have layers of meaning and significance when examined more closely.