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