April 11

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 8, 1773).

“He will open a Place for Sale of Goods to be known by the Name of The Silent Auction-Room.”

When he established the “Silent Auction-Room” in Boston in the spring of 1773, A. Bowman did not even pretend politeness toward his competitors in his advertisements.  In a notice that he placed in the April 8 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, he mocked the advertisements placed by three of his competitors.  All three advertisements appeared in that issue, making for easy reference for readers, though Bowman previously encountered them in other newspapers.

The auctioneer stated that he would “receive and sell all Sorts of Merchandise, House-Furniture,” and other goods.  However, “‘Houses, Lands and Shipping,’ he does not pretend to sell,” he snidely comments, “because he is apprehensive it would be very difficult to get them up Stairs.”  Bowman quoted directly from William Greenleaf’s advertisement.  His rival stated, “In the Sale of Houses, Lands, Shipping, Merchandize, Household Furniture, &c. &c. my Employers may depend on my exerting myself for their Interest.”

The cantankerous auctioneer then declared that “Goods from ‘Servants and Minors’ will be received if they are properly authorized to deliver them.”  In this instance, he taunted Martin Bicker, a broker who handled “all sorts of English and Scotch Goods [and] Household Furniture … to as good Advantage as can be done at any Auction whatever.”  Bicker proclaimed that “the Public may rest assured, that no Goods will be received by him of any Servants or Minors.”  Bowman established a different policy for his “Silent Auction-Room.”  He took another jab at Bicker when he asserted that “His ‘Books’ shall be kept in good Order, so that it gives him no Concern whether they are ‘liable to Inspection,’ or not.”  Before noting that he did not accept goods from servants or minors, presumably to avoid peddling stolen items, Bicker confided that “his Books are not liable to Inspection.”  Bowman treated such lack of transparency with skepticism.

The final portion of Bowman’s advertisement, a short poem, most directly addressed the source of his anger and frustration.  Joseph Russell, the proprietor of an auction room on Queen Street, previously published an advertisement that concluded with a poem that promoted his own business and mocked the demise of Bowman’s auction house.  In addition to the poem, Russell announced that he “received a License from the Gentlemen Select-Men, to be an Auctioneer for the Town of Boston, conformable to the late Act for that Purpose.”  Similarly, Greenleaf trumpeted that the “Gentlemen Select-Men … approbated me to officiate as one of the Vendue-Masters [or auctioneers] for this Town.”  Bicker carefully described himself as a broker and made clear to prospective clients that his services rivaled those offered by auctioneers.

Boston Evening-Post (March 29, 1773).

Bowman apparently did not receive a license.  In advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on March 22 and in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on March 25, he referred to his business as “BOWMAN’s Dying Auction-Room.”  His advertisement in the March 29 edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured a thick black border, a symbol of death and mourning in early American print culture.  Bowman lamented that his auction room “is soon to be sacrificed for the Good of the Province” and that he will be legally dead, (the taking away a Man’s Bread or his Life being synonymous) before another News-Paper comes out.”  That advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette on the same day, though without the mourning border that clearly indicated how Bowman felt about the situation.  That explains why Bowman described himself as the “late Auctioneer” at the “Dead Auction-Room” in his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on April 8.  That he proposed opening a “Silent Auction-Room” suggests he identified some sort of loophole to defy the licensing act, perhaps as a broker rather than an auctioneer.  In subsequent advertisements, he noted that he sold goods on commission.

Russell observed Bowman’s commentary in his advertisements, prompting him to allude to it in the poem he included in his own notice: “While some this Stage of Action quit, / And Dying advertise; / For Cash the Buyers here may meet / With constant fresh Supplies.”  Not done with his own editorializing about his competitor, Russell added another stanza: “For Favors past, due Thanks return’d; / New Bargains, cheap and dear, / At the Old Place may still be found / J. RUSSELL, Auctioneer.”  Russell pointedly declared that his business continued at a location familiar to residents of Boston.

In response, Bowman published his own poem at the end of his advertisement.  “A License granted! pray for what? / To show their Parts in Rhyme; / But hear the Tale the Dead will rise, / And that in proper Time.”  Bowman did not think much of Russell’s poetry nor his abilities as an auctioneer.  At the same time, he pledged to revive his business, a footnote indicating that the public could anticipate that happening “When the expected Ships discharge their Cargoes.” Bowman critiqued the licensing act in a final stanza: “Fair LIBERTY thou Idol great, / How narrow is thy Sphere! / Ye Men of Sense say where she dwells, / For sure she reigns not here.”  As colonizers in Boston debated the extent that Parliament infringed on their liberties, Bowman asserted that the new act, a local ordinance, curtailed liberty in the city.

By and large, auctioneers and other advertisers usually ignored their competitors.  The angry and defiant Bowman, however, did not do so.  Instead, he mocked several of the auctioneers and brokers who advertised in Boston’s newspapers, parroting their notices when he taunted them.  He also continued to protest the new licensing act that caused him to close his auction room.  In addition to promoting his next endeavor, the “Silent Auction-Room,” he used advertisements as a means of disseminating his commentary on the state of affairs in Boston.

April 5

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 5, 1773).

“No Good will be received by him of any Servants or Minors.”

Martin Bicker launched a new enterprise in Boston in the early 1770s.  He offered his services as a broker who “receive[s] in all sorts of English and Scotch Goods, Houshold Furniture,” and other items and “does engage to raise the Cash for such Goods delivered [to] him for Sale.”  In so doing, he put himself in competition most directly with auctioneers in the city, though he also gave consumers another alternative to buying from shopkeepers.  Retailers also had the option to purchase wares from Bicker rather than from merchants.  Still, Bicker positioned him services primarily as an alternative to those provided by auctioneers in the city.  In an advertisement in the April 5, 1773, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, he declared that he paid cash for goods that clients entrusted to him “with as quick Dispatch and to good Advantage as can be done at any Auction whatever.”  In addition, he concluded with a nota bene directed at buyers, declaring that he “has for Sale a Variety of English and other Goods, which may be had as cheap as at any VENDUE” or auction.  Bicker noted that he ran his brokerage “At the RED FLAG,” a symbol usually associated with auctions but appropriated here for his own purposes.

Given that the broker offered secondhand goods for sale, he aimed to reassure the public that he did not peddle stolen items.  Bicker stopped short of allowing others to examine his ledgers, but he did promise that “no Goods will be received by him of any Servants or Minors.”  That meant that he did not accept items delivered by all sorts of free and unfree laborers who fell within the category of servants, including indentured servants, apprentices, and enslaved men and women.  Bicker realized that these subordinates sometimes stole goods from their employers, masters, or enslavers and then sold or traded them.  He also refused items from children and youth who similarly lacked authority when it came to disposing of goods.  In his efforts to make his brokerage a success, Bicker pursued two strategies in his advertisement.  He presented his services as equal to those in the auction houses already familiar to residents of Boston while simultaneously encouraging confidence in his integrity as an honest dealer who did not accept any and all merchandise sent his way.  Instead, he exercised appropriate discretion that testified to his overall trustworthiness.

August 6

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 6, 1772).

“THE Subscriber takes this Method to inform his Friend and the Public in general …”

When Martin Bicker “prepared a compleat Room at his Dwelling House … for the Reception of Goods, to be Sold at public Sale,” he placed an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  He advised prospective clients that “Such who are pleased to favor him with their Commands may, rest assured, that the greatest Punctuality and Honor will be strictly observed.”  He also asserted that since “the Situation is very suitable for said Business” that “the Result of his Undertaking will be attended with mutual Advantage to his Employers and self.”

To draw attention to his overtures “To the Public,” Bicker arranged to have his newspaper enclosed in a border composed of decorative type.  That distinguished the enclosure from the simple horizontal lines that separated other advertisements from one another.  No other advertisements in the August 6, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter had a border, making Bicker’s notice all the more distinctive.  That was not the first time that Bicker sought to enliven a newspaper notice with some sort of unique visual element.  Earlier in the summer, he placed an advertisement for hats in the Massachusetts Spy, adorning it with a woodcut depicting a tricorne hat.  Advertisers sometimes availed themselves of stock images of ships, houses, horses, and enslaved people provided by printers, but fewer of them commissioned woodcuts that correlated to the goods they produced or the signs that marked their shops.

Bicker strove to make his advertisements visually interesting on newspaper pages that often consisted primarily of dense text.  Indeed, the first time he inserted the advertisement with the border, it appeared at the top of the final column on the first page.  The two columns to the left contained news from London, Bristol, and Philadelphia.  The border around Bicker’s advertisement clearly signaled that it was not part of those dense dispatches, inviting readers to have a closer look at what merited such special typographical treatment.  Bicker sought to use graphic design to his advantage when he launched his new enterprise.

June 18

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

Massachusetts Spy (June 18, 1772).

“HATS manufactured and sold by the advertiser.”

Of the five newspapers published in Boston in the summer of 1772, the Massachusetts Spy had the most elaborate masthead, but it also had featured the fewest innovations in design for the rest of the contents, including advertisements.  For instance, a decorative border enclosed Jolley Allen’s advertisement when it appeared in each of the other newspapers, but that distinctive format was not incorporated into Allen’s notice when he submitted identical copy to the Massachusetts Spy.

That did not prevent Martin Bicker from attempting to draw more attention to his advertisement with an image of his merchandise in the upper left corner.  Bicker advertised that he “manufactured and sold” hats.  A woodcut depicting a tricorne hat, a popular style at the time, alerted readers to the contents of the advertisement before they read it.  Bicker did not provide many details about his hats, but he did declare that he “hopes he has given such satisfaction to his customers as will induce them to continue their favours.”  In other words, he invited repeat business and recommendations via word of mouth.

New-York Journal (June 18, 1772).

The same day that Bicker’s advertisement ran in the Massachusetts Spy, Nesbitt Deane once again inserted his advertisement for hats in the New-York Journal.  Both the appeals he made to customers and the image that accompanied the notice were more sophisticated.  Deane trumpeted that he made hats “to exceed in Fineness, Cut, Colour and Cock.”  In addition, he devised a means “to turn rain, and prevent the Sweat of the Head damaging the crown.”  Prospective customers would not find that feature in other hats, Deane asserted, because he invented “a Method peculiar to himself. He also gave a discount to retailers who bought in volume, offering “Encouragement to those who buy to sell again.”  Like Bicker, Deane acknowledged his existing customers and asked them to promote his hats.  “Such Gentry and others, who have experienced his Ability, ’tis hoped will recommend.”  The image at the top of Deane’s advertisement included both a tricorne hat and a banner with his name.  Rococo flourishes further enhanced that image.

Bicker did not deploy as many appeals as Deane in his effort to entice consumers to purchase his hats, but including an image in his advertisement distinguished it from most others in the Massachusetts Spy.  Relatively few advertisements published in the eighteenth-century newspapers featured images of any sort.  Did including images give advertisers an advantage?  Deane apparently thought so.  By the time Bicker placed his notice, Deane had been running his advertisement for nearly a year.  He likely would not have inserted it in the New-York Journal so many times if he did not believe he received a return on his investment.