October 28

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

South-Carolina Gazette (October 25, 1770).

“New Advertisements.”

What qualified as front page news in eighteenth-century American newspapers?  Even asking that question reveals a difference between how newspapers organized their content then compared to what became standard practice in the nineteenth century and later.  Today, most readers associate massive headlines and the most significant stories with the front page, but that was not the approach to delivering the news in the eighteenth century.

In general, news items did not include headlines that summarized their contents.  They did have datelines, such as “BOSTON, AUGUST 27,” that indicated the source of the news, yet those datelines did not necessarily mean that they covered events from a particular place, only that the printer received or reprinted news previously reported there.  For instance, a dateline might say “New York” and deliver news from London elsewhere in England that was first reported in newspapers published in New York.  Similarly, a dateline for “Boston” could lead news items that included events from other towns in New England.  Printers sometimes listed their sources, such as another newspaper or a letter, but not always.  Along with the dateline for “BOSTON, AUGUST 27” in the October 25, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, printer Peter Timothy stated that the following news came from “An extract of a letter from a gentleman of distinction in Connecticut, dated August 14, 1770.”  The news under that dateline consisted of a single story, but printers often grouped together many different stories without distinguishing them with their own datelines.  Without headlines and other visual markers to aid them in understanding how the contents were organized, subscribers and others had to read closely as they navigated newspapers.

The placement of advertisements testifies to another stark difference between eighteenth-century newspapers and those published today.  Modern readers are accustomed to news appearing on the front page, especially above the fold.  Eighteenth-century printers and readers, however, did not associate the front page with the most significant news.  Instead, advertising often appeared on the front page.  On October 25, 1770, the front page of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter consisted of three columns, the first two devoted to news and the final one containing several advertisements.  The edition of the South-Carolina Gazette published the same day commenced with a column of “New Advertisements” as the first item on the first page.  The other two columns delivered news.  Most newspapers consisted of only four pages created by printing two on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  The first and fourth pages, printed simultaneously, often contained advertisements received well in advance, while the second and third pages, also printed simultaneously featured the latest news that had just arrived via newspapers from other towns, letters, and other means.  Colonists looking for what modern readers would consider front page news understood that they often would not encounter those stories until they opened their newspapers to the second page.

Then and now, newspapers delivered news and advertising, the latter providing much of the revenue necessary for the former.  The appearance and organization of newspapers, however, has changed over time.  Modern readers are accustomed to newspapers overflowing with advertising, but not advertising on the front page, a space now reserved for the lead stories.  Eighteenth-century readers, on the other hand, often saw commercial messages and other sorts of paid notices as soon as they began perusing the front page.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 25, 1770).

October 25

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 25, 1770).

“A Sermon occasion’d by the sudden and much lamented Death of the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

In the wake of George Whitefield’s death on September 30, 1770, printers, booksellers, and others quickly sought to capitalize on the event by publishing and selling commemorative items dedicated to the memory of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  This commodification included producing new broadsides with images, poems, and hymns as well as marketing books originally published years earlier that were already in stock but gained new resonance.  Throughout the past month, the Adverts 250 Project has been tracking many of those publications to demonstrate the extent of the simultaneous commemoration and commodification that took place in the weeks after colonists learned of Whitefield’s death.  Advertisements hawking Whitefield memorabilia ran in newspapers published in Boston, New York, Portsmouth, and Salem almost as soon as the news appeared in the public prints.

A notice for yet another item, Heaven the Residence of the Saints, ran in the October 25, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  The advertisement, reiterating the lengthy title, explained that this pamphlet was a “Sermon occasion’d by the sudden and much lamented Death of the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”  Ebenezer Pemberton, “Pastor of a Church in Boston,” delivered the sermon on October 11.  Just two weeks later, Joseph Edwards informed consumers that they could purchase copies of the sermon from him.  Daniel Kneeland printed that first edition for Edwards, but other printers recognized the prospective market for the pamphlet.  It did not take long for Hugh Gaine to reprint his own edition in New York or for E. and C. Dilly to commission a London edition, that one also featuring the “Elegiac Poem” composed by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet, and frequently advertised and sold separately in the colonies.

New coverage of Whitefield’s death continued in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter with a short article about Whitefield’s “PATRIOTISM” taken from the October 19, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Such articles, however, were not the sole extent of news about the minister.  Advertisements for commemorative items served as an alternative means of marking current events … and purchasing memorabilia gave consumers an opportunity to be part of those events as they joined others in mourning the death of Whitefield and celebrating his life.

October 11

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 11, 1770).

“AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD … By PHILLIS.”

On October 11, 1770, coverage of George Whitefield’s death on September 30 continued to radiate out from Boston with news appearing in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal.  The commodification of Whitefield’s death intensified as well.  Both newspapers printed in Boston on that day, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and the Massachusetts Spy, carried advertisements for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

Phillis Wheatley, now recognized as one of the most significant poets in eighteenth-century America, composed the poem, though in the advertisements she was known as “PHILLIS, A servant girl of seventeen years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston.”  Referring to the young woman as a “servant girl” obscured the fact that she was enslaved by the Wheatley family.  The advertisements further explained that she “has been but nine years in this country from Africa.”  This event brought together Whitefield, the influential minister following his death, and Wheatley, the young poet near the beginning of her literary career.  Although both are well known to historians and others today, much of Wheatley’s acclaim came after her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784.  Arguably, Wheatley is more famous than Whitefield in twenty-first-century America, reversing their relative status compared to the eighteenth century.

In addition to the novelty of an African poet, Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles also promoted the image that adorned the broadside, proclaiming that it was “Embellished with a plate, representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port.”  Examine the Library Company of Philadelphia’s copy of Wheatley’s “Elegiac Poem,” including an introduction that doubled as the copy for the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, the woodcut depicting Whitefield, and black borders that symbolized mourning in the eighteenth century.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 11, 1770).

Wheatley’s poem sold by Russell and Boyles was not the only one advertised on October 11.  In a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, Richard Draper announced that he published “An Elegy to the Memory of that pious and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST The Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”  Exercising he prerogative as printer of that newspaper, Draper placed his advertisement before the one for the broadside with Wheatley’s poem and the woodcut of Whitefield.

Both poems celebrated Whitefield’s life and ministry.  Both gave colonial consumers an opportunity to mourn for Whitefield and feel better connected to his ministry, even if they had never had the chance to hear him preach.  Especially for those who had not witnessed Whitefield deliver a sermon, purchasing one of these broadsides allowed them to have an experience closely associated with Whitefield’s life by commemorating his death.  The printers who produced, marketed, and sold these broadsides simultaneously honored Whitefield’s memory and commodified his death, merging mourning and making money.

September 13

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 13, 1770).

“At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.”

In an advertisement in the September 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Jonathan Williams informed readers that he sold “Choice Pesada, Malaga, Madeira, Tenerife or Vidonia, and other WINES.”  He also stocked “Good Barbadoes RUM” and “good empty Casks for Cyder.”  To aid prospective customers in finding his storehouse, Williams listed his location as “At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.”  A sign depicting a Black child and a barrel adorned his place of business.

Black people, many of them enslaved, were present in Boston during the era of the American Revolution.  Living and working in the bustling port city, Black people were physically present.  Elsewhere in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, another advertisement offered a “likely Negro Woman, about 20 Years old” for sale.  The enslaver remained anonymous, as was often the case, instead directing interested parties to “Enquire at [Richard] Draper’s Printing Office.”  Another advertisement described a “NEGRO MAN, calls himself Jeffry,” who had been “Taken up” on suspicion of having escaped from his enslaver.  In addition to living and working in Boston, Black people also endeavored to liberate themselves, though they had been doing that long before the era of the American Revolution.

As Williams’s sign testifies, Black people were also present in the iconography on display in Boston, just as they were in other port cities In New England and other regions.  (See a short and unsurely incomplete list below.)  The “Black Boy and Butt” represented Williams’s commercial interests.  He transformed the Black body into a logo for his business, a further exploitation of the enslaved people responsible for producing many of the commodities he marketed.  The “Good Barbadoes RUM” he promoted came from a colony notorious for both the size of its enslaved population and the harsh conditions under which they involuntarily labored to produce sugarcane desired for sweetening tea and necessary for distilling rum.  Williams may not have been an enslaver himself, but his business depended on enslaved people twice over, first through production and then through the visual representation that distinguished his storehouse from other buildings on Cornhill Street.  Williams’s customers encountered a visible reminder that their consumption habits were enmeshed in networks of trade that integrated slavery as a vital component every time they visited his storehouse and saw the “Black Boy and Butt.”

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Sign of the Black Boy, Providence Gazette, April 15, 1769
Sign of the Black Boy and Butt, Providence Gazette, December 10, 1768
Sign of the Black Boy, Connecticut Courant, March 31, 1766

September 2

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

Sep 2 - 8:30:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 30, 1770).

“Some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick.”

Henry Barnes, a merchant, did not meet with success the first time he offered the “Whole of the Real-Estate” he owned in Marlborough for sale in an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury in the summer of 1770.  He inserted his advertisement for three consecutive weeks in the issues distributed on July 5, 12, and 19.  In it, he described “a Dwelling-House in good Repair, very pleasantly situated, with the Out-Houses” as well as a large store conveniently located and “extremely well-calculated for Business both Wholesale and Retail.”  The property also included “a very large Pearl-Ash Work,” a still that could produce five hundred barrels of cider a year, seven acres of land for mowing and pasturing, and “a Number of Asparagus Beds in their prime.”  Prospective buyers could anticipate making a living, not just residing, on this property.  Yet the “Whole of the Real-Estate of HENRY BARNES” did not sell.

Barnes had an idea why that was the case.  Four weeks after his advertisement originally ran in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, he placed it again, but this time with an addition.  In a nota bene that concluded the advertisement, Barnes stated, “Whereas some People have surmised that the above Advertisement was inserted only to amuse the Publick: This is to Certify, that I am determined to sell, provided anybody comes up to my Terms which are thought to be very reasonable.”  Apparently, Barnes’s advertisement had not gone unnoticed, even though it had not produced the results he intended.  Readers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and others in the community became aware of Barnes’s real estate notice, discussed it, and dismissed it.  That prompted Barnes to return to the public prints to address the gossip, rumors, and idle talk that the first iteration of his advertisement produced.  He ran the advertisement with the addendum on August 16, 23, and 30.

How effective were newspaper advertisements in eighteenth-century America?  Answering questions about reception is difficult.  Barnes testified to an unintended consequence of placing his advertisement.  It did not initially result in a sale of his real estate, but other colonists did notice it and talk about it.  They read the notice, even if they did not respond in the manner that Barnes hoped.

August 30

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

Aug 30 - 8:30:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 30, 1770).

“They were all imported before the Non-Importation Agreement commenced.”

As fall approached in 1770, Richard Jennys ran advertisement for a “Variety of English, India and Scotch Goods” in the August 30 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  He informed “his Customers and others” that he intended to sell his entire inventory “at the very lowest Rates.”  From “Black, white, and crimson plain Sattin” to “Very handsome Apron Gauz” to “Mens & Womens Hose,” Jennys promised bargains.

He also appended a short note about when these imported goods arrived in the colonies.  “They were all imported,” he declared, “before the Non-Importation Agreement commenced.”  The merchants and traders of Boston and other towns and cities throughout the colonies previously agreed to boycott imported goods in response to duties imposed on certain goods by the Townshend Acts.  They aimed to use economic leverage for political purposes, vowing not to import goods until Parliament repealed all of the duties.  Near the end of spring the residents of Boston received word that most of the duties had been repealed, tea excepted.  That left them in a quandary.  Having mostly achieved their goal, could they relent and resume importing?  Or, should the nonimportation pact remain in place until Parliament eliminated the duty on tea as well?  Merchants in New York very quickly reverted to their previous practices in May, but debates continued in Boston and Philadelphia.  The agreement remained in place in Philadelphia well into September and in Boston into October.

Jennys alerted prospective customers and the entire community that he continued to abide by the agreement while it remained in effect, but he advertisement also suggested that he suspected that trade would resume in the near future, that it was only a matter of time before Boston followed the example of New York.  One reason that he offered such low prices was his determination “to sell off his whole Stock in Trade this Fall.”  Jennys likely sought to clear out his inventory of goods imported quite some time earlier in order to make room for new goods that he anticipated would be arriving in Boston before the end of the year.  His advertisement demonstrated both political savvy and a practical approach to change that Jennys sensed coming.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:23:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (August 23, 1770).

“Two Negro Men, supposed to have gone off in Company.”

Two Black men, known to their enslavers as Boston and Newport, liberated themselves in the summer of 1770.  They escaped from Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainfield, Connecticut, during the night of August 8.  Coit and Kinsman, in turn, immediately set about placing newspaper advertisements describing Boston and Newport and offering rewards in hopes of enlisting other colonists in capturing the Black men and returning them to enslavement.  Unlike most enslavers who placed such advertisements in a single newspaper or multiple newspapers in a single city, Coit and Kinsman broadened the scope of their surveillance and recovery efforts by inserting advertisements in five newspapers published in five cities and towns in four colonies.  In addition to the reward they offered, they made an investment in advertisements that ran in Hartford’s Connecticut Courant, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, the New-London Gazette, the New-York Journal, and the Providence Gazette.

Although similar, these advertisements were not identical.  The variations tell a more complete story of the escape devised by Boston and Newport.  Consider the notice that ran in the New-London Gazette.  Dated August 9 (first appearing in the August 10 edition) and signed by Coit, it featured Boston only, describing him as “a stout, thick-set fellow, of middling stature, about 30 years old, very black.”  It was the only advertisement that included a visual image, a crude woodcut of a Black person in motion, wearing a grass skirt and carrying a staff, an “R” for runaway on the chest.  Another advertisement dated August 9 ran in the New-York Journal, but that one included the descriptions of both Boston and Newport.  It did not appear until August 23, likely due to the time it took for the copy to arrive in the printing office in New York from Plainfield.  An undated advertisement with almost identical copy also ran in the Providence Gazette for the first time on August 18, likely dispatched to the printing office at the same time as the one sent to New York.  Coit and Kinsman both signed it.  They noted in the final paragraph that “Said Negroes have Passes, and if apprehended, ‘tis requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters.”  Quite likely Coit sent the copy for his advertisement concerning Boston to the New-London Gazette, the newspaper closest to Plainfield, prior to discovering that Newport liberated himself from Kinsman.  When the enslavers realized that Boston and Newport liberated themselves on the same night, they collaborated on new advertisements with a narrative updated from what ran in the New-London Gazette.  The new version stated that Boston and Newport were suspected “to have gone off in Company,” a conspiracy to free themselves.  Determining that they had passes may have caused Coit and Kinsman to widen the scope of their efforts by publishing in multiple newspapers in New England and New York, realizing that the passes increased the mobility and chances of escape for Boston and Newport.

Two other advertisements, those that ran in the Connecticut Courant and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, had identical copy.  They included short descriptions of Boston and Newport, signed by Coit and Kinsman.  In a nota bene, they declared, “It is suspected said Negroes have got a forg’d Pass.”  These advertisements were both dated August 10.  The notice in the Hartford newspaper first appeared on August 13 and in the Boston newspaper on August 16.  As the enslavers fretted about Boston and Newport having better prospects for making good on their escape thanks to the passes, they likely determined that they needed to place notices in additional newspapers.  Doing so amounted to an effort to recruit more colonists to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine whether they might be Boston or Newport.

Advertisements for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves appeared in American newspapers just about every day in the era of the American Revolution.  The advertisements concerning Boston and Newport were not unique in their content or purpose.  What made them extraordinary was the geographic scope of the newspapers in which they appeared and the effort and expense undertaken by the enslavers Coit and Kinsman.  They marshalled the power of the press across a vast region in their attempt to return Boston and Newport to bondage.

August 16

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

Aug 16 - 8:16:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 16, 1770).

“Orders having been left with Mr. Jennings for that purpose.”

Advertisements for lost, missing, and stolen items frequently appeared in newspapers from New England to Georgia in the eighteenth century.  For lost and missing items, advertisers often offered rewards to those who returned them.  For stolen items, advertisers usually offered rewards not only for the return of their items but also for information about the thieves and burglars who had taken them.

An advertisement in the August 16, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter took a different approach.  The advertiser noted that on August 6 “a Man’s HAT was taken out of the House of William Sheaffe, Esq; in Queen-street.”  The hat may have belonged to Sheaffe or to a visitor; the remainder of the advertisement never specified who owned the hat or made the offer that followed.  Rather than expressing anger about the theft, the “Owner of [the hat] would charitably suppose that the Person who took it away was under a pressing Necessity for a little Money, or much in want of a Hat.”  The anonymous advertiser acknowledged that some colonists participated in the consumer revolution through informal means, wearing stolen apparel or selling stolen goods.  Having chosen to take a charitable approach, the advertiser informed whoever had his hat that “if he will return it to Mr. Levi Jennings, Hatter, in King-Street, he shall receive a New One in Lieu thereof.”  The advertiser also offered assurances of “Orders having been left with Mr. Jennings for that purpose.”  Instead of calling for the arrest and punishment of whoever took the hat, the advertiser made a bargain to purchase a new hat in return for the old, perhaps because it held sentimental value.

Whoever took that hat was not the only one who stood to come out ahead.  Jennings, the hatter, benefited from the compassionate approach taken by the anonymous advertiser.  Not only did he sell a hat, he also saw his business promoted in the public prints in connection to an interesting story.  The advertisement did not include the usual hallmarks of how artisans promoted their wares, but it did make Jennings part of a narrative that readers were likely to remember.

June 28

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

Jun 28 - 6:28:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury (June 28, 1770).

“English GOODS, imported agreeable to the Non-importation Agreement.”

Joshua Gardner listed a variety of imported “English GOODS” in his advertisement in the June 28, 1770 edition, of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Before even enumerating the “blue capuchin silks” or the “horn & ivory combs” or the “brass candlesticks,” Gardner first informed prospective customers and the entire community of readers that he imported his wares “agreeable to the Non-importation Agreement.”  Among the advertisers who promoted consumer goods and services in that issue of the News-Letter, Gardner was not alone in asserting when he had acquired his inventory.  Oliver Greenleaf advertised “Umbrilloes,” an exotic and fashionable accessory, as well as “a Variety of other Articles.”  Rather than a preamble, he incorporated a postscript pledging that “All … were imported agreeable to the Merchants Agreement.”  Similarly, Smith and Atkinson stated in a nota bene that they carried “A small Assortment of English Goods, (imported before the late Agreements of the Merchants).”  Other advertisers made similar claims in notices inserted in other newspapers published in Boston that week.

With the repeal of all of the Townshend duties on imported goods with the exception of tea, the fate of nonimportation agreements throughout the colonies became uncertain.  When word of the repeal arrived in the colonies in May 1770, merchants in New York quickly dissolved their agreement and resumed trade with their counterparts in England.  In late June, the agreements in Boston and Philadelphia still remained in effect, though neither would survive to the end of the year.  Gardner, Greenleaf, and Smith and Atkinson likely realized that the agreement adopted by Boston’s merchants might not last much longer; for the moment, their merchandise had the cachet of promoting political principles, but once the nonimportation agreement collapsed and competitors began importing new goods from England their wares imported before the agreement went into effect would become leftovers that had lingered on the shelves and in warehouses.  In composing their advertisements, Gardner and others may have suspected that they had one last chance to link their merchandise to patriotic principles before new goods flooded the market.

May 27

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

May 27 - 5:24:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (May 24, 1770).

The other Advertisements must be deferred to next Week.”

John Crosby, who sold citrus fruits “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons,” and George Spriggs, “Gardner to JOHN HANCOCK,” were fortunate.  Their advertisements were the last two that appeared in the May 24, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  At the bottom of the third column on the final page, Richard Draper, the printer, inserted a brief notice that “The other Advertisements must be deferred to next Week.”  Unlike Crosby and Spriggs, some advertisers did not see their notices in print in that issue.

Draper had too much content to include in the standard four-page edition that week.  He may have considered producing a two-page supplement, as eighteenth-century printers often did in such situations, but perhaps he did not have sufficient advertisements to fill the space.  Alternately, lack of time or other resources may have prevented him from distributing a supplement that week.  Compared to other issues, the May 24 edition contained relatively few advertisements.  They comprised just over two columns, less than an entire page in a publication that often delivered just as much advertising as news.

Like other newspaper printers, Draper had to strike a balance between news and advertising.  Subscribers expected to receive the news, not just advertising, but advertisers contributed significant revenue to the operation of colonial newspapers.  Advertisers expected to put their notices before the eyes of readers.  They wished to reach as many readers as possible, which meant that printers could not alienate subscribers by skimping on the news or else risk their newspapers becoming less attractive venues for placing advertisements because subscription numbers decreased.  This was especially true in the larger port cities where printers published competing newspapers.  When it came to attracting both subscribers and advertisers, Draper contended with the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy in 1770.  Delaying advertisements by a week on occasion was unlikely to convince his advertisers to post their notices in other newspapers, but it was not something that Draper could do on a regular basis and expect to maintain his clientele of advertisers and attract new ones.