November 17

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

Nov 17 - 11:17:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary
Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary (November 17, 1769).

“TEA, that was imported before the Agreement of Non-importation.”

On November 17, 1769, Herman Brimmer inserted an advertisement for “Two or three Chests of BOHEA TEA, that was imported before the Agreement of Non-importation took place” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. Without enough space to include the advertisement in the standard four-page issue for that week, Richard Draper, the printer, placed Brimmer’s advertisement on the first page of a two-page extraordinary edition that accompanied the regular issue.

Brimmer made a point to advise prospective customers and the entire community that he sold tea that did not violate the resolutions adopted by “the Merchants and Traders in the Town of Boston” more than a year earlier on August 1, 1768.   It was just as well that he did so for his advertisement appeared immediately to the right of news about the nonimportation pact. Boston’s merchants and traders had recently updated their agreement on October 17, asserting that they “will not import any Kind of Goods or Merchandize from Great-Britain … until the Acts imposing Duties in America for raising a Revenue be totally repealed.” The third of the new resolutions explicitly mentioned tea: “we will not import … or purchase of any who may import from any other Colony in America, any Tea, Paper, Glass, or any other Goods commonly imported from Great Britain, until the Revenue Acts are totally repealed.” To give more teeth to these resolutions, those attending “a Meeting of the Merchants” just ten days earlier “VOTED, That the Names of all Such Persons as may hereafter import any Goods from Great-Britain contrary to the Agreement … be inserted in the News-Papers, and that they be held up to the Public as Persons counteracting the salutary Measures the Merchants are pursuing for the obtaining the Redress of their Grievances.” The merchants who devised the nonimportation agreement meant business!

Brimmer’s advertisement for “BOHEA TEA” did not merely promote a popular product. It was part of a larger public discourse about the meanings of goods, in this case not just the cultural meanings associated with drinking tea but also the political meanings of purchasing tea during a time of crisis. Other advertisers in the late 1760s underscored that they did not violate the nonimportation agreements, but their advertisements in colonial newspapers rarely appeared immediately next to copies of those agreements. That made neither advertisers nor readers any less cognizant of the fact that news items and advertisements operated in conversation with each other. Elsewhere in the same issue, William Greenleaf assured readers that he imported his merchandise “before the Non-importation Agreement took Place” and Henry Bass called on colonists to purchase grindstone manufactured in the colonies. They participated in the same conversation about using commerce as a means of resistance to the Townshend Acts and, in doing so, preserving “Liberties and Privileges” for themselves and posterity. That the nonimportation resolutions and Brimmer’s advertisement ran next to each other provides stark visual evidence of that conversation that took place in advertisements throughout the newspaper.

May 29

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

May 29 - 5:29:1766 Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary
Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary (May 29, 1766).

Print played a significant role in the coming of the American Revolution. Some scholars argue for the primacy of newspapers in facilitating debate, giving a voice to protest, and shaping public opinion. Other printed items, however, also played a role, including pamphlets, sermons, almanacs, and engraved images (the eighteenth-century counterpart to modern political cartoons). Many of the advertisements selected for inclusion here directly addressed the discontent over the Stamp Act, some of them by marketing tracts that defended the colonies against the abuses of Parliament.

Printers and booksellers simultaneously expressed political views and sought to earn a living by advertising and selling items related to the crisis while the Stamp Act was still in effect. That did not change when the Stamp Act was repealed, though the rhetoric may have shifted slightly. Rather than promote a work condemning an overzealous and overreaching Parliament, today’s advertisement announced the publication of a “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.” That hated piece of legislation was gone, but printers continued to express their political beliefs – and they seized new opportunities to turn a profit as well.

In this case, politics might have slightly edged out profit. Three printing firms that otherwise would have been competitors joined together to advertise and sell the “Thanksgiving-Discourse”: Richard Draper and Samuel Draper (printers of the Massachusetts Gazette), Benjamin Edes and John Gill (printers of the Boston-Gazette) and Thomas Fleet and John Fleet (printers of the Boston Evening-Post).

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Bonus: Newspapers carried more than editorials and advertisements that commented on politics. This “ODE On the Repeal of the Stamp-Act” appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette in the same week as the advertisement for the “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.”

May 29 - 5:29:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (May 29, 1766).