July 11

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

Jul 11 - 7:11:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (July 11, 1768).

“To be Particular in the different Species of said Assortment, would be Tedious.”

When Nathaniel Bird opened a new store on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1768, he stocked it with “a very large and general Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS, suitable for the Season.” Unlike many of his competitors in Newport and counterparts in other colonial cities and towns, Bird did not insert a list of merchandise in his advertisement as a demonstration of the vast choices available to prospective customers. Instead, he adopted a different strategy, one that was less common though not unknown. He advised readers that “To be Particular in the different Species of said Assortment, would be Tedious, and of Course Impertinent with the Publick.” He critiqued one of the standard practices of eighteenth-century advertising for consumer goods, the litany of items offered for sale. Depriving readers and potential customers of an extensive list, he argued, was actually a virtue. His advertisement did not intrude in the public prints any more than necessary to advise the residents of Newport and the surrounding area that he stocked an assortment of imported goods. This method also had the advantage of prompting readers to imagine how long the list might have been if Bird had instead chosen to publish it, an exercise that perhaps conjured consumer choice better than explicitly naming specific articles.

In the absence of a litany of goods, Bird developed other strategies for marketing his wares. He informed prospective customers that he “imports all his Goods direct from the Manufactories.” Some readers may have been skeptical about his ability to acquire everything in his “very large and general Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” directly from the producers, but others likely focused on the purpose of this pronouncement. Bird claimed that he eliminated English merchants and other middlemen who drove up prices. This was one factor that allowed him to sell his merchandise “very low, or as cheap as at Boston, or any of the other Governments.” Comparing prices in Newport to those in Boston was a particular concern of the smaller port’s merchants and shopkeepers at the time. Two columns over from Bird’s advertisement, Stephen Deblois, Jr., asserted that he sold similar goods “on as low Terms as they can be had at any Shop or Store in Boston.” Deblois also refrained from publishing a list that enumerated his inventory, but he did not offer any commentary of the sort Bird espoused concerning that decision.

Bird’s critique of list-style advertisements may have garnered additional attention for his own notice. Did consumers consider it an effective appeal? That cannot be determined from the advertisement alone, but Bird’s boldness in making the statement suggests an interest in playing with the accepted forms as a means of engaging prospective customers who might otherwise pass over advertisements that did not seem to offer any content out of the ordinary. Bird’s terse comments made his advertisement memorable, if nothing else.

July 1

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

Jul 1 - 6:30:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (June 30, 1766).

“RIBBONS, … best English RIGGING, … neat silver WATCHES, … genuine red PORT WINE.”

Shopkeeper Nathaniel Bird published a dense advertisement that listed dozens of items for sale, everything from textiles to dancing shoes to ink powder to hourglasses. He loosely organized the merchandise, but that did little to make it easier to navigate the extensive list of goods he stocked “At his New Store in Thames-Street.”

Four items do stand out from the rest: ribbons, rigging, watches, and port wine. Each of them, like Nathaniel Bird’s name, was set in capitals intended to draw attention. I have previously argued that in most cases advertisers wrote their own copy but printers took the responsibility for its appearance and format, though the advertisers likely gave special instructions on occasion. This would appear to be one of those instances. It seems unlikely that a printer (or an apprentice or anybody else working in the shop) would encounter a list of merchandise and on a whim decide to set a small number of items in capitals. More likely, the advertiser specified that certain items be capitalized.

Why those particular items? It is impossible to determine for certain. Perhaps Bird intended to highlight the diversity of goods he sold, the various departments in his shop a century before the concept of the department store was invoked. Many similar list advertisements include textiles exclusively. By listing other items in capitals, Bird drew attention to the portions of the advertisement that promoted other sorts of goods: a variety of adornments to accompany the textiles (RIBBONS), supplies for outfitting vessels (RIGGING), devices for keeping or measuring time (WATCHES), and imported groceries and spirits (PORT WINE). Bird may have been experimenting with a rudimentary method of cataloging his merchandise as a means of demonstrating the various needs and desires that could be fulfilled in his shop without having to visit other establishments.