August 1

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

Providence Gazette (August 1, 1772).

“At the very lowest Rates that any Merchants sell for in America.”

John Brown, a prominent merchant who made a portion of his fortune through participation in the transatlantic slave trade, wanted it both ways in an advertisement for “English and India GOODS” he placed in the August 1, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette.  He declared that it “would be needless to particularize every Article in a News-Paper,” but them provided an extensive list of items that customers would find “among the great Variety” of items he imported from London.  Extending two-thirds of a column, the catalog of goods included “a neat assortment of looking glasses,” “a compleat assortment of hard ware, consisting of almost every article ever imported,” “beads and necklaces,” “boys furred caps,” and “ivory and horn combs.”  Like many other merchants and shopkeepers, Brown listed dozens of textiles. Despite considering it “needless to particularize every Article,” Brown published the longest advertisement, by far, in that issue of the Providence Gazette.

In addition to demonstrating the range of choices available at his store, Brown sought to distinguish his advertisement by promising low prices to merchants and shopkeepers who made wholesale purchases.  He promised the “very lowest Rates that any Merchants sell for in America,” making a bold claim that extended far beyond his competitors in Providence.  Brown claimed that his prices matched or beat those set by merchants in Newport, the other major port in the colony, as well as merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.  Retailers in Providence and other towns in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts did not need to acquire their merchandise from merchants in Boston or New York in hopes of getting the best deals.  Instead, they could streamline the supply chain by working directly with Brown.  Merchants and shopkeepers sometimes claimed they offered the lowest prices in town or in the colony or region.  Just as he “went big” with his list of imported goods, Brown attempted to awe and entice prospective customers with hyperbolic declarations about offering the best prices anywhere in the colonies.

June 15

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

Providence Gazette (June 15, 1771).

“He will sell as cheap … as can be purchased anywhere on the Continent.”

Purveyors of goods and services frequently made appeals to price to entice prospective customers, but some made much bolder claims than others.  Consider how advertisers sought to leverage price to their advantage in the June 15, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette.

William Eliot stocked a variety of textiles “to be sold cheap.”  Similarly, John Fitton sold flour, pork, and peas by the barrel, “all cheap for Cash” (or in trade for “good Melasses”).  In addition to promising low prices, other advertisers insisted that they set the lowest prices for their wares.  The partnership of Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses Brown, for instance, carried “a fine Assortment of Hard Ware and other GOODS, which they will sell on the lowest Terms.”  Coy and Waterman specialized in painting supplies, having “furnished themselves with a compleat Assortment of Painters Colours, which they will sell at the lowest Prices.”

Other advertisers made even more colorful proclamations about prices.  At his shop at the Sign of the Turk’s Head, Paul Allen supposedly offered some of the best bargains anywhere in the colonies.  He trumpeted that “he will sell on as low Terms … as can be purchased anywhere on the Continent.”  Allen informed prospective customers that his prices matched the best deals available in Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and other towns and cities.  Joseph Nash made the same comparison, declaring that he sold his “neat Assortment of GOODS … as cheap … as can be purchased anywhere on the Continent.”  Allen and Nash echoed an appeal John Morton and James Morton made in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy the previous day.  The Mortons promised prospective customers that they could acquire their merchandise “as cheap as in New York or Boston.”

The vast majority of merchants and shopkeepers mentioned low prices in their newspaper advertisements, though some were more creative than others in doing so.  Advertisers like Allen and Nash attempted to attract customers with reassurances that they had the best deals anywhere, not just prices that were low enough to compete in the local marketplace.  In the process, they prompted readers to imagine themselves participating in a consumer revolution taking place throughout the colonies and beyond.  Acquiring goods connected readers of the Providence Gazette to colonists in faraway places, giving them common experiences through their experiences in the marketplace.

January 10

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

Jan 10 - 1:7:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 7, 1768).

“He is determined to sell as cheap as can be bought in any Part of America.”

Frederick William Geyer, a frequent advertiser in Boston’s newspapers in the late 1760s, advanced one of the most common marketing appeals of the eighteenth century: he promoted his low prices. He did not, however, resort to any of the stock phrases or formulaic language often deployed by shopkeepers and merchants in newspaper advertisements throughout the colonies. Instead, he made hyperbolic claims about the bargains prospective customers could expect to encounter upon visiting his shop. Geyer proclaimed that he was “determined to sell as cheap as can be bought in any Part of America, either by Wholesale or Retail.” Some advertisers compared their prices to others in the same city or the same region, but virtually none made such sweeping statements about prices throughout the colonies.

While readers certainly would have been skeptical of such a claim, Geyer won the advantage of forcing consumers to grapple with it. He planted the idea, challenging them to learn his prices and assess them on their own. At the very least, such language set his advertisement apart from others, making it memorable for its bold assertion. It also set the stage for negotiations between buyer and seller. Although Geyer did not promise to match the prices of his competitors, expressing his determination to offer the lowest prices “in any Part of America” suggested his willingness to make a deal in order to satisfy customers that he delivered on his rhetoric.

Eighteenth-century advertisers promoted their prices, not unlike advertisers today. Many relied on standardized language to make the most basic sort of appeal to potential customers, but the language of price was not static. Others, like Geyer, experimented with increasingly audacious descriptions of their prices to overshadow their competition and attract the attention of consumers. Even if readers did not immediately make purchases from Geyer, his advertisement contributed to a reputation that could convince consumers to visit his shop and check out his prices at some point in the future.