January 21

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

Jan 21 - 1:21:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 21, 1768).

“PUBLIC VENDUE, At the NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.”

Auctioneer John Gerrish inserted advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette to encourage residents of Boston and its environs to buy and sell at his “Public Vendue-Office” in the North End. His upcoming auctions included “A great Variety of Articles, — lately imported,” including “Mens Apparel,” a “Variety of Callimancoes,” and “a Parcel of well-made, exceeding stout P. JACKETS and Breeches, very suitable in the present Season for Fishermen.” In addition to new merchandise, he also auctioned “Second hand Articles.” This selection matched the inventories listed in advertisements for shops and other auction houses in local newspapers.

To convince both buyers and sellers to do business at his establishment, Gerrish asserted that the experience would compare favorably to commercial transactions conducted elsewhere in the urban port. “All Sorts of Goods sell full as well at the North End,” he proclaimed, “as in King-Street, Queen-Street, or any other Street, or Auction Room in Boston.” In a bustling city, readers had many choices when it came to venues for buying and selling consumer goods. Gerrish did not want them to dismiss the North End out of hand.

The “Public Vendue Master” also underscored that buyers and sellers could depend on fairness when they made their transactions at the “NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.” Realizing that some readers might indeed have preferences for familiar shops and auction houses elsewhere in the city, he strove to bolster his reputation by assuring potential clients and customers that they had nothing to lose if they instead chose his vendue office. Those who decided to “Employ the Master of said Vendue Office” could “depend upon His Fidelity,” trusting that he made every effort to market their merchandise prior to the auction and encourage the highest possible returns during the bidding. Invoking his “Fidelity” also suggested that he kept accurate books and did not attempt to cheat sellers, especially those who could not be present at an auction to witness the bidding. Yet he also served those looking to make purchases, stressing that “all BUYERS may depend upon never being IMPOSED upon in said Vendue Office.” Gerrish pledged not to unduly pressure prospective customers who attended his auctions. Even as he worked as an intermediary who executed exchanges between buyers and sellers, he wanted each to feel as though they ultimately remained in charge of their commercial transactions rather than relinquishing control to potential manipulation on his part.

John Gerrish, Public Vendue Master, did more than merely announce that he conducted auctions in Boston’s North End. He encouraged both buyers and sellers to participate by instilling confidence in the process, promising that he faithfully served them. Colonists had many choices when it came to acquiring and selling consumer goods. Gerrish used his advertisement to assure them that doing business at his auction house was an option well worth their consideration.

January 10

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

Jan 10 - 1:7:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 7, 1768).

“He is determined to sell as cheap as can be bought in any Part of America.”

Frederick William Geyer, a frequent advertiser in Boston’s newspapers in the late 1760s, advanced one of the most common marketing appeals of the eighteenth century: he promoted his low prices. He did not, however, resort to any of the stock phrases or formulaic language often deployed by shopkeepers and merchants in newspaper advertisements throughout the colonies. Instead, he made hyperbolic claims about the bargains prospective customers could expect to encounter upon visiting his shop. Geyer proclaimed that he was “determined to sell as cheap as can be bought in any Part of America, either by Wholesale or Retail.” Some advertisers compared their prices to others in the same city or the same region, but virtually none made such sweeping statements about prices throughout the colonies.

While readers certainly would have been skeptical of such a claim, Geyer won the advantage of forcing consumers to grapple with it. He planted the idea, challenging them to learn his prices and assess them on their own. At the very least, such language set his advertisement apart from others, making it memorable for its bold assertion. It also set the stage for negotiations between buyer and seller. Although Geyer did not promise to match the prices of his competitors, expressing his determination to offer the lowest prices “in any Part of America” suggested his willingness to make a deal in order to satisfy customers that he delivered on his rhetoric.

Eighteenth-century advertisers promoted their prices, not unlike advertisers today. Many relied on standardized language to make the most basic sort of appeal to potential customers, but the language of price was not static. Others, like Geyer, experimented with increasingly audacious descriptions of their prices to overshadow their competition and attract the attention of consumers. Even if readers did not immediately make purchases from Geyer, his advertisement contributed to a reputation that could convince consumers to visit his shop and check out his prices at some point in the future.

December 4

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

Dec 4 - 12:4:1767 Massachusetts Gazette.jpg
Massachusetts Gazette (December 4, 1767).

“At his Shop between LIBERTY TREE and the Sign of the White Horse.”

During the era of the American Revolution, advertisers had a variety of means for identifying locations in cities and towns. The largest ports began imposing order on urban environments by assigning standardized street numbers at the very end of the eighteenth century. Until then, colonists relied on a variety of landmarks, shop signs, and other devices for giving directions. In the December 4, 1767, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and its supplement, for instance, Thomas Hickling invited potential customers to visit “his Shop at the Corner of Black Horse Lane, leading to Charlestown Ferry.” Samuel Hughes sold maritime supplies “At his Store next to Capt. Chever’s in King-Street, BOSTON.” Jonathan Davis indicated that he sold his wares “Near BULL’s Wharf.” Despite the varying levels of specificity, each advertiser assumed he provided enough information for potential customers to find his place of business.

In giving directions to his shop, John Greenlaw not only named local landmarks but also invoked political attitudes expressed widely throughout the colony in recent months. He informed customers that he ran a shop “between LIBERTY TREE and the Sign of the White Horse, South-End, BOSTON.” The Townshend Act went into effect less than a week before Greenlaw first inserted his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette in the November 26 issue. In the preceding weeks, all of the Boston newspapers devoted significant coverage to the new duties on imported goods and the local response, including resolutions calling for new non-importation agreements passed at the town meeting at the end of October. Even as he sold “A General Assortment of English and Scotch Goods” imported before the Townshend Act went into effect, Greenlaw associated his business with the Liberty Tree, a symbol of colonial resistance to Parliament.

Colonists like Greenlaw used advertisements to express their political views in the public prints. In the time between the repeal of the Stamp Act and the imposition of the Townshend Act, only John Gore, Jr., consistently incorporated the Liberty Tree into his advertisements. Now that colonists once again experienced Parliamentary overreach, other advertisers in Boston expressed political sentiments by adopting the Liberty Tree as a significant landmark for giving directions to readers. In addition to Greenlaw, another advertiser listed a “handsome Dwelling House” to rent “at the South-End of Boston, near LIBERTY TREE” in the December 4 issue. In an era when advertisers creatively devised a variety of methods for giving directions in print, Greenlaw, Gore, and others could have chosen other landmarks or devices to describe their locations. In selecting the Liberty Tree to include in their advertisements, they communicated more than just where potential customers could find them.

November 26

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

Nov 26 - 11:26:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (November 26, 1767).

“Enquire of the Printer.”

In the late fall of 1767, an anonymous colonist placed a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette announcing that he “WANTED 6 very good Saddle Horses.” Anyone who could provide pacers who met the specifications in the advertisement was requested to “Enquire of the Printer.”

In the November 26 edition, a “Servant Man that will do any Sort of laborious Business in a Family” informed readers that he “WANTS Employ.” He did not provide any additional information about his background or previous experience, but instead stated that “He may be heard of by enquiring at Draper’s Printing Office.”

In the same issue, a slaveholder offered a short description of “A Likely healthy Negro Fellow” who was “TO BE SOLD.” The enslaved man had previously labored as a domestic servant and had cared for a horse, but he was “very capable of learning any other Business.” Anyone interested in acquiring the slave needed to “Enquire ay Draper’s Printing-Office.”

Another colonist sought tenants for “a handsome Dwelling-House … near LIBERTY TREE” in the south end of Boston. The advertisement did not include any other particulars, except for instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” if interested.

Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements frequently advised readers to “Enquire of the Printer.” As a result, printing offices became places where colonists converged to exchange information, not just locations where printers compiled “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestick” (as some mastheads asserted) in newspapers before distributing them to readers near and far. Even as coffeehouses became increasingly popular places to conduct business, printing offices provided an alternate venue. In some instances printers may have done little more than make introductions between advertisers and readers (a service likely provided free of charge to those who purchased advertising space), but that still placed them at the center of networks for exchanging information. Printers served as gatekeepers of information, exercising their own prerogatives in choosing which news, letters, and other items to publish in newspapers as well as withholding certain details relevant to paid notices at the request of advertisers. Their fellow colonists, just like the news, flowed into as well as out of their printing offices.

November 12

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

Nov 12 - 11:12:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (November 12, 1767).

“Joshua Blanchard Going into another Trade, Is selling his GOODS.”

It would have been difficult for readers not to notice Joshua Blanchard’s advertisement in the November 12, 1767, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette. It occupied the entire first column on the first page. In addition, it had a different format than most other advertisements that listed consumer goods. On the left Blanchard listed his inventory; on the right he indicated prices. Approximately fifty entries included specific prices that potential customers could expect to pay at Blanchard’s shop. Throughout the eighteenth century, merchants and shopkeepers rarely inserted prices in their advertisements. When they did, they usually confined themselves to a small number of items. Blanchard, on the other hand, provided an extensive guide to retail prices at his shop on Dock Street.

Why did Blanchard take this extraordinary step? He had previously emphasized the “VERY LOW Price at which he sells” in other advertisements, but had mocked the popular practice of “enumerating every Particular, even to Pins and Needles.” Apparently he changed his mind when he decided to have a going-out-of-business sale. He opened his advertisement by explaining that because he was “Going into another Trade” that he was “selling his GOODS.” He listed specific prices as a means of attracting attention, inciting demand for his merchandise, and demonstrating that he meant business. Prospective customers did not need to worry that Blanchard would lure them into his shop with promises of low prices only to end up haggling over prices similar to those of his competitors. Instead, they knew in advance how much he charged for dozens of items.

Blanchard ceased listing prices about two-thirds of the way through his advertisement, switching to two columns that merely listed other merchandise. Space constraints and the cost of placing a lengthier advertisement may have prevented him from providing prices for every item. Or, he might not have intended to list prices for his entire inventory, preferring instead to use the first items in his advertisement to draw customers into his shop and trusting that they would then encounter other bargains that they could not resist.

Eighteenth-century retailers did not usually use sales as a means of marketing their wares, certainly not to the extent that the practice became standard in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but some did experiment with the concept. In effect, Joshua Blanchard advertised a going-out-of-business sale in the fall of 1767.

November 8

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

Nov 8 - 11:5:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (November 5, 1767).

“At his Shop opposite LIBERTY-TREE, BOSTON.”

John Gore, Jr., sold a “fresh assortment of English and India GOODS … at his Shop opposite LIBERTY-TREE” in Boston in the late 1760s. By November 1767, Gore had been referencing the Liberty Tree in his advertisements for more than two years, a practice that he began during the Stamp Act crisis. Other advertisers had used the Liberty Tree as a landmark to direct consumers to their businesses while the Stamp Act was in effect, but Gore was the only shopkeeper in Boston who consistently invoked the Liberty Tree in his commercial notices after Parliament relented and repealed the Stamp Act. Doing so suggested his politics to potential customers. He asserted the appropriate relationship between England and the colonies even as he continued to import and sell English goods.

Making that pitch became more complicated in the fall of 1767. Colonists in Boston accused English merchants of draining the province of hard currency through an imbalance of trade. For several years colonists had imported more from Britain than they exported. Add to that the imposition of new legislation, the Townshend Acts, that assessed new taxes on certain imported goods, set to take effect on November 20, 1767. Residents of Boston determined that they needed to take action. At a town meeting on October 28, 1767, Bostonians pledged “to promote Industry, Oeconomy, and Manufactures, and by this Means prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, the excessive Use of which threatens the Country with Poverty and Ruin” (according to the report on the first page of the Massachusetts Gazette that carried Gore’s advertisement invoking the Liberty Tree). To that end, Bostonians “VOTED, That this Town will take all prudent and legal Measures to encourage the Produce and Manufactures of this Province.” Furthermore, they promised “that we will encourage the Use and Consumption of all Articles manufactured in any of the British Colonies.” To underscore their resolve, Bostonians voted to institute a new non-importation and non-consumption agreement effective on December 31. The Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy all carried this news on November 2. Similarly, the Massachusetts Gazette inserted it on November 5. The Boston Post-Boy called special attention to these measures with a rare headline: “Save your MONEY, and you Save your COUNTRY!

Gore found himself in a difficult position. For the past two years he had used his shop’s proximity to the Liberty Tree to identify his business, encouraging patrons to associate his enterprise with resistance to Parliament’s attempts to unjustly tax the colonies. Now, however, his friends and neighbors called for an outright boycott of his imported merchandise. One of his primary appeals to prospective customers, familiar due to its steady repetition in the public prints, suddenly became much less powerful. Would it matter that Gore’s shop was located “opposite LIBERTY-TREE” if he stocked an array of goods imported from London?

November 1

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

Nov 1 - 10:29:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (October 29, 1767).

“China Ware and Paper, much cheaper than they will come a little while hence.”

In an advertisement placed in the Massachusetts Gazette at the end of October 1767, Caleb Blanchard “Acquaints his Customers in Town and Country, that he has Just Imported … a LARGE and COMPLEAT ASSORTMENT of GOODS, both English & India” that he sold for low prices at his shop on Union Street in Boston. He also listed several other items that he stocked, including cocoa, sugar, tobacco, nutmegs, and cinnamon. Although he had already announced that he charged “the very lowest advance” for his wares, he concluded with another appeal to price. Blanchard proclaimed that he sold “China Ware and Paper, much cheaper than they will come a little while hence.”

Blanchard implied that the prices of china and paper would soon increase, but he did not explicitly state why he was so certain that customers would soon pay more for those particular items. He did not need to do so. Readers of the Massachusetts Gazette “in Town and Country” already knew that that the Townshend Act was set to go into effect in just three weeks on November 20, 1767. Indeed, residents throughout the colonies were aware of the provisions of the Townshend Act, in large part because newspaper printers from Massachusetts to Georgia had published excerpts of the legislation.

Article I of the Townshend Act assessed duties on dozens of different kinds of imported paper, from twelve shillings “For every ream of paper, usually called or known by the name Atlas Fine” to nine pence “For every ream of paper called Demy Second, made in Great Britain” to ten pence halfpenny “For every single ream of blue paper for sugar bakers.” Article II specified that duties on “all other paper” not specifically mentioned should be calculated on the nearest equivalent. Article III defined how many sheets of paper made a quire and how many quires made a ream.

Articles VII and VIII prohibited drawbacks on “china earthen ware.” In other words, merchants could not expect to receive a refund on any taxes they paid for re-exporting imported china. In the end, this would raise prices for consumers since merchants and shopkeepers would pass along the expense to their customers.

Caleb Blanchard did not name the Townshend Act in his advertisement, but that was not necessary to make his appeal to price resonate with consumers. Readers of the Massachusetts Gazette would have been well aware of the impending duties. They would have made the connection on their own. Blanchard depended on public awareness of politics and imperial economic policy in marketing his wares.