July 15

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

Boston Evening-Post (July 15, 1771).

“Buy worth a Dollar, when you come, / And you may drink a Glass of Rum.”

Lydia Learned received some free advertising in the July 15, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  She distributed a handbill that listed a variety of items available at her shop “Near the Sign of the Punch-Bowl” in Brookline.  Intrigued by the advertisement, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, inserted it in its entirety along with a note advising, “The following advertisement, copied from one in the Punch Bowl Tavern in Brookline, we publish for the Amusement of out Poetical Readers.”  Indeed, the poetry, not the assortment of goods offered for sale, attracted their attention.  Few advertisers attempted to transform their inventory into poetry in newspaper notices or on broadsides and handbills, helping to make Learned’s advertisement more memorable.

Her poetry featured three stanzas of four lines each, the second and fourth lines rhyming.  Learned devoted the first stanza entirely to her wares:  “FLOUR, Raisons, Rice, Molosses, Spice, / Good Indigo and Wire, / Knives[,] Combs, Fish-hooks, Verses and Books, / And Paper by the Quire.”  In the remaining stanzas, she used the final line to make appeals to prospective customers.  In the second, for instance, she listed “Sugar[,] Bisket and Chocolate, / Tinn, Glass and Earthen-ware, / Pins, Needles[,] Thread and Ginger-bread, / As good as any where.”  Her shop may have been humble compared to the larger enterprises operated by other entrepreneurs, but Learned assured prospective customers that the size of her business did not negatively affect the quality of her merchandise.  In the final stanza, she offered an additional incentive to shoppers.  “Salt, Allum, Coffee, Tea, and Snuff, / Crown-Soap and Candles, cheap enough / Buy worth a Dollar when you come, / And you may drink a glass of RUM.”  Perhaps the nip of alcohol as much as the poetry amused the Fleets and convinced them to reprint Learned’s handbill in their newspapers.

Learned was not the only entrepreneur to have the text from a trade card or billhead also printed in an eighteenth-century newspaper.  On May 5, 1768, Mary Symonds, a milliner in Philadelphia, ran a lengthy advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  In it, she listed dozens of items among her inventory.  She also distributed a trade card that reiterated, with minor variations, the text from the newspaper advertisement.  In October and November 1770, she recorded a receipted bill for items purchased by the Cadwalader family on the reverse, suggesting that Symonds kept her trade card in circulation for some time.

Symonds seems to have made a more intentional effort than Learned when it came to deploying advertisements in multiple formats.  All the same, Learned demonstrated creativity in devising a billhead that distinguished her business from her competitors.  If prospective customers did not appreciate the poetry, then the promise of a glass of rum offered as a premium for making a purchase may have convinced them to check out her merchandise.

Lydia Learned, Trade Card, ca. 1771. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.