April 30

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

Apr 30 - 4:30:1767 Boston News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette (April 30, 1767).

“Genteel Assortment newest fashion Fans and Masks.”

At his shop at the sign of the Three Doves in Boston, William Blair Townsend sold “A Fresh Assortment Goods for the Season” recently imported from London. Many of his competitors advised potential customers that they stocked fashionable goods, especially textiles, accessories, and adornments for garments, but most deployed some sort of blanket statement to that effect. Townsend, on the other hand, underscored that he carried dry goods à la mode, inserting the word “fashionable” five times in his list of merchandise. For instance, he carried “Ducapes, with Fashionable Trimmings” and “fashionable white Blond Lace.” For those worried that merchants in England attempted to pawn off inventory already going out of style to colonial shopkeepers to pass along to their customers far removed from the cosmopolitan center of the empire, Townsend asserted that his customers could purchase “new fashion black and white Silk Mitts” as well as a “variety newest fashion figured and plated Silver Ribbons.” Both could have been used to dress up garments that might otherwise have been already passing out of style. Townsend adopted even more expansive language as he continued describing his wares: “genteel Assortment newest fashion Fans and Masks.” Other eighteenth-century advertisers commonly made appeals to fashion, but Townsend made it the centerpiece of his marketing strategy.

Not all colonists were as keen on keeping up with current fashions as the customers Townsend sought to cultivate. The Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary, a supplement for “other News and New-Advertisements,” included a notice that “In a few Days will be Published, AN ADDRESS TO PERSONS of FASHION.” The author did not look upon the consumer revolution, its rituals of purchasing and display, with fondness. This pamphlet was a warning “worthy the serious Attention of every Christian, especially at a Time when Vice and Immorality seem to have an Ascendancy over Religion.” This advertisement stood in stark contrast to the array of advertisements hawking all sorts of consumer goods that surrounded it. Seemingly separated from Townsend’s advertisement by several pages according to modern archival practices, the Extraordinary may have been inserted in the Massachusetts Gazette as a means of keeping the two publications for April 30 together. If that was the case, the advertisement for the “ADDRESS TO PERSONS of FASHION” appeared on the far left of the page that faced Townsend’s advertisement. Readers would have encountered the critique of fashion almost immediately before perusing the shopkeeper’s efforts to extoll his stylish merchandise.

August 23

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

Aug 23 - 8:23:1766 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 23, 1766).

“A most curious four wheeled Carriage, called the AETHERIAL VEHICLE.”

Thomas Sabin provided transportation between Providence and Boston “or elsewhere” for his clients, but he marketed an experience (not unlike modern car manufacturers and airlines). According to his advertisement, the important part of a trip was not necessarily arriving at the destination. Instead, enjoying the journey itself, including the amenities of his “AETHERIAL VEHICLE,” transformed getting from here to there into an event itself.

This was no ordinary “four wheeled Carriage,” Sabin proclaimed. A variety of factors, including its “wonderful and most elegant Construction,” merited an equally wonderful and most elegant name – the “AETHERIAL VEHICLE” – that distinguished it from any of the other carriages, coaches, chaises, phaetons, and, especially, stage wagons common in colonial America.

Sabin conjured up images of practically gliding from place to place, compared to the bumpy ride passengers experienced when using other wheeled vehicles. “It is airy, and more easy than any other Carriage,” he explained. “It would be almost impossible to describe it’s uncommon Machinery in Words, so as to give an adequate Idea of its Ease and Use.” Sabin implicitly challenged readers with doubts about the accuracy of this hyperbolic description to engage his services and judge for themselves, a crafty way to generate more business.

He also deployed another strategy to encourage the curious to become customers. “Those who are not inclined to ride in it, and desire to see it, shall be waited upon by the Owner to view it, when in his Coach House, gratis.” Once Sabin had potential customers in his “Coach House” and was able to speak to them directly, he could work on convincing them to hire his “AETHERIAL VEHICLE.” It’s difficult to know Sabin conducted himself in person, but it’s possible he could have given the same sort of hard sell that modern consumers encounter when they visit car dealerships.

At the very least, Sabin assured clients that they would receive special treatment when they rode the “AETHERIAL VEHICLE.” He promised that “besides the Satisfaction of being conveyed in so convenient a Machine,” customers “may depend upon the most ready Observance of their Desires, and punctual Compliance with their Commands.” For colonists, this would have been the equivalent of hiring a limousine or flying first class.

July 25

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

Jul 25 - 7:25:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (July 25, 1766).

“Where likewise may be had the mathematical GOUTY CHAIR.”

What was a “mathematical GOUTY CHAIR”? The gouty chair was a precursor to the modern wheelchair (though what made this particular model “mathematical” remains unclear). In Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England, 1754-1851, Akiko Shimbo indicates that it is not exactly certain when gouty stools and gouty chairs first appeared: “the earliest example in published pattern books was Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (first edition, 1788).”[1]

Those who suffer from gout experience painful inflammation of the joints, notably in the hands and feet (and especially the toes), which would indeed make standing or walking difficult. Shimbo further indicates that elite men were especially prone to gout in the eighteenth century; the malady was associated with an increase in luxury. The term “gouty chair” was likely intended “to convey a luxurious and superior image.”[2]

That made the gouty chair ideal for Benjamin Bucktrout, CABINET MAKER, from LONDON,” to promote in his advertisement. Bucktrout arrived in Williamsburg in 1766; his advertisement was the first time his name appeared in any sort of public records in the colony. He seized upon the occasion to make a memorable first impression. Not only did he have the cachet of migrating from London, the cosmopolitan center of the empire, he also promised that he produced furniture “in the neatest and newest fashions.” What better way to demonstrate the fashionable aspects of his work than to construct gouty chairs, a product already linked to luxury and refinement? In highlighting this particular piece of furniture, he signaled to the local elite that he understood their concerns and was prepared to serve them well.

Jul 25 - Gouty Chair
Gouty Chair (Unknown Maker, ca. 1800).  Victoria and Albert Museum.


[1] Akiko Shimbo, Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England, 1754-1851: Design as Interaction (Routledge, 2015). See chapter 4, “Forming Taste and Style: Consumers’ Needs and Participation.”

[2] Shimbo, Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England. See chapter 4.