May 5

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

Essex Gazette (May 5, 1772).

“MULBERRY TREES.”

Loammi Baldwin did much more than advertise mulberry trees for sale in Woburn, Massachusetts, in a notice that ran in the May 5, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette.  He advocated for colonizers in New England to more firmly establish a silk industry and, to that end, offered advice for cultivating mulberry trees.

What was the connection between mulberry trees and silk?  As Bob Wyss explains, the silkworm, a type of caterpillar, “prefers a diet of mulberry leaves.  It produces a cocoon which, when unraveled, can be spun into silk thread.”  Colonizers experimented with silk production in Virginia as early as 1613, “but efforts to build businesses around [silkworms] in American colonies such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania were only marginally successful.”  Efforts expanded into New England when the Connecticut Colonial Assembly “passed legislation offering financial incentives for silk growers” in 1734.  Bolstered by those incentives and newspaper advertisements promoting mulberry trees and silk production, some colonizers in Connecticut met with success in their silk ventures in the second half of the eighteenth century.  In the early nineteenth century, “Connecticut was a national leader in silk production and by 1840 was producing three times as much silk as any other state.”

Baldwin believed that silk production had a lot of potential in neighboring Massachusetts.  “I would spare no reasonable pains,” he declared, to encourage and bring to perfection, the production of so valuable an article as silk.”  He explained that he had already raised silkworms for a few years and “made a machine to winde the silk.”  He found the entire process “less difficult than I imagined.”  Yet readers did not need to take his word for it.  “Some of the raw silk,” Baldwin confided, “I sent to the society for encouraging arts, sciences and commerce in Great-Britain, where it was examined, and found equal to the Italian silk.”  As a result, he had a vision that depended on colonizers purchasing the mulberry trees he advertised.  “I am fully of the opinion,” Baldwin asserted, “that the culture of silk may be effected and brought to at least the state of raw silk, which we may export to great advantage.”  Yet he did not confine that vision merely to producing raw materials.  Instead, he believed that colonizers could “then procure Weavers, and other tradesmen, and carry on the whole manufacture amongst ourselves.”

Both politics and commerce likely influenced Baldwin’s vision.  Within the past several years, colonizers objected to new imperial regulations, including the Stamp Act and duties on imported goods imposed in the Townshend Acts.  In response, they adopted nonimportation agreements and encouraged the production and consumption of “domestic manufactures,” goods made in the colonies, as alternatives to imports from Britain.  In an age of homespun cloth signaling resistance to abuses perpetrated by Parliament, cultivating mulberry trees for the purpose of producing silk had the potential to further safeguard both the political and commercial interests of the colonies.

September 16

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

Boston-Gazette (September 16, 1771).

“George Spriggs, Gardner to John Hancock, Esq.”

In the early 1770s, George Spriggs supplied colonists with fruit trees.  In September 1771, he placed advertisements in the Boston-Gazette to promote “ABOUT four or five Thousand Mulberry Trees of different Sizes,” “a large Assortment of English Fruit Trees,” and “an Assortment of flowering Shrubs.”  Those were not just any mulberry trees, Spriggs asserted.  They grew from seeds from “the first ripe Fruit of Mulberries, from a Tree of Mr. David Colson’s, which is the largest and finest Fruit that is in America.”  He expected consumers to be familiar with Colson and his trees or at least trust his expertise about the significance.  He carefully timed his marketing, advising prospective customers that “the best Time of transplanting” the fruit trees “is about the Middle of October.”  Anyone interested in purchasing trees or shrubs from Spriggs could plan accordingly.

In addition to establishing a connection to Colson, Spriggs leveraged his connection to a colonist so prominent that readers of the Boston-Gazette almost certainly knew who he was.  Before he even described the trees and shrubs he offered for sale, Spriggs described himself as “Gardner to John Hancock, Esq.”  It was not the first time he deployed that strategy, seeking to benefit from the celebrity of one of his clients.  In February 1770, for instance, he opened another advertisement in the same manner.  Nor was he the only advertiser who named a famous client as a means of establishing his credentials.  Elsewhere in the Boston-Gazette, Jacob Hemet introduced himself as “DENTIST to her Majesty, and the Princess Amelia.”  Doctors and dentists who migrated to the colonies frequently claimed they previously provided their services to nobles and the gentry in Europe, expecting prospective clients to take their word for it.  Spriggs, on the other hand, knew that customers could much more easily confirm whether he actually was a “Gardner to John Hancock, Esq.”  He did not publish a testimonial from the prominent merchant, but encouraged customers to believe that his association with Hancock was recommendation enough.

March 31

GUEST CURATOR: Aidan Griffin

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

New-London Gazette (March 31, 1769).

“Mulberry Trees, to the Number of Three-Thousand, to be sold at a reasonable Rate.”

If you know anything about the weather in New England, it might seem not that strange that William Hanks advertised mulberry trees in late March 1769. However, what surprised me was that these trees were used for silk production because silkworms love mulberry leaves. Attempts at silk production in America goes back really far. According to Bob Wyss, “Silkworms were first imported to Virginia as early as 1613.” Producing silk in Virginia makes sense as it is warmer there, but why in Connecticut? “In 1734 the Connecticut Colonial Assembly passed legislation offering financial incentives for silk growers.” Now this might seem difficult, but two people actually succeeded. “One was Nathaniel Aspinwall, a horticulturalist. In the 1750s Aspinwall planted mulberry trees at a nursery he owned in Long Island and later in Mansfield and New Haven, Connecticut. Aspinwall also raised and distributed to customers the silkworm eggs needed to produce the caterpillars and cocoons. The second individual was Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, who kept a diary of his silk-raising activities from 1763 to 1790.” Soon, this interest in silk production turned into full-blown mania when prices for mulberry trees kept rising and rising. The mania ended in the early nineteenth century when the prices crashed. In such bitter irony, the crash hurt Connecticut the most. “No place was struck harder than Connecticut,” Wyss explains.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

William Hanks’s advertisement for “Mulberry Trees … sold cheap for the speedy promoting the Culture of SILK” in Connecticut appeared on the same page as the “COUNTRY NEWS,” snippets of news from around the colony that supplemented letters to the editor and news from other places in North America and beyond. The “COUNTRY NEWS” also promoted silk production, noting the recent efforts of Hanks and others. In the previous year, the New-London Gazette reported, Hanks “raised Silk sufficient to make Three Women’s Gowns.” In addition, “Sundry Gentlemen in Windham and Lebanon have large Nurseries, and others Orchards of Mulberry Trees, which have been cultivated to bring on a Silk Manufactory.” Furthermore, “One Silk House is already erected in Lebanon.”

The “COUNTRY NEWS” did not, however, focus exclusively on silk. The printer inserted updates about vineyards as well, briefly noting that a “Gentleman in Windham is also cultivating a large Vineyard.” This section of the newspaper included an even longer overview of another colonist’s attempt to establish a local vineyard. That colonist was none other than William Hanks. “We are informed,” the New-London Gazette proclaimed, “that Mr. William Hanks of Mansfield, in this Colony, is now cultivating a large Vineyard; and as the Vines at present look very Promising, he hopes to be able in Two or Three Years to furnish the Public with Wines unadulterated with any Duties.”

The newspaper’s correspondent for that bit of news was probably none other than William Hanks himself. He likely submitted that information to the printing office at the same time as the copy for his advertisement. He then benefited from its appearance (along with the assertion that he had produced enough silk for three gowns) as a news item, one that simultaneously served as a puff piece that promoted the mulberry trees he advertised elsewhere in the newspaper. The final phrase in the report about his vineyard further enhanced Hanks’s marketing by giving it a political valence. In stressing that Hanks’s wine would be “unadulterated with any Duties,” the newspaper advanced “Buy American” sentiments consistent with calls to produce more goods in the colonies in order to correct a trade imbalance with Britain and to consume those goods as acts of resistance to the Townshend Acts and other abuses by Parliament. Readers of the New-London Gazette encountered this message in both the news and the advertisements as they moved from “Wines unadulterated with any Duties” in the “COUNTRY NEWS” to “Mulberry Trees … for the speedy promoting the Culture of SILK” among the paid notices.