What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“All Cheap for Cash or Melasses.”
On July 14, 1770, John Fitton advertised “NEW-made Poughkeepsie Flour, by the Quantity and Barrel, and a few Barrels of Long-Island Pork” in the Providence Gazette. Like most eighteenth-century purveyors of goods and services, he did not indicate prices in his advertisement, though he did assert that he sold these items “cheap.” Fitton’s advertisement appeared next to the “PRICES CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of the going rates for a variety of popular commodities. This gave prospective buyers a sense of what they could expect to pay Fitton for flour and pork. According to the prices current, flour traded at sixteen shillings and six pence “By the Hundred Weight” and pork at seventy-two shillings “By the Barrel.” If Fitton’s prices deviated too far above those listed in the prices current, buyers knew to look elsewhere to find better deals. They could also assess the bargains he offered if his “cheap” prices fell below the rates reported in the prices current. Fitton also informed prospective buyers that he accepted “Cash or Melasses” in payment. The prices current included an entry for molasses, listing that commodity at one shilling and six pence per gallon. Anyone with molasses to trade could use the prices current to calculate that a hundredweight of flour was worth eleven gallons of molasses and a barrel of pork was worth forty-eight gallons of molasses. The prices current established baselines for all sorts of exchanges in the Providence marketplace.
Like most eighteenth-century newspaper printers, John Carter usually placed the prices current adjacent to advertisements, facilitating the process of using one to inform the other. This required active reading on the part of colonists, but their efforts allowed them to use different items in the newspaper to craft a more complete portrait of the commercial landscape. Carter’s curation of the content of the Providence Gazette provided readers with useful materials beyond news items that summarized current events near and far.