January 30

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

Jan 30 - 1:30:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 30, 1768).

“JUST OPENED, and to be Sold by Nathl. Greene.”

To modern readers it may appear that Nathaniel Greene had just launched a new venture when he placed his advertisement in the January 30, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. After all, the first line announced in capital letters that he had “JUST OPENED” his shop at “the West End of the Great Bridge.” Residents of Providence in the late 1760s, however, would have understood this advertisement rather differently. Even if they had never visited, a great many would have been aware of his shop already. Readers of the Providence Gazette would have been exposed to Greene’s advertisements fairly regularly for more than a year. For instance, in August 1766 he had placed an advertisement that included the same location for “his Shop, on the West Side of the Great Bridge, Providence.”

So what did Greene mean when he proclaimed that he had “JUST OPENED” in late January 1768? This phrase described his merchandise rather than his location. His advertisement informed potential customers that he had updated his inventory and now offered a “neat Assortment of English and India GOODS, of all Kinds” that he had not previously made available. He attempted to entice consumers to examine his wares by presenting those goods as new rather than leftovers that had been lingering on the shelves.

That appeal may have lost some of its initial power to persuade by the end of January. Greene’s advertisement first ran in the January 2 issue, the promise of new merchandise coinciding with the new year. It then ran in five consecutive weekly issues, becoming as familiar to readers as the location of Greene’s shop, before being discontinued in the first issue published in February.

When it first appeared, however, the headline “JUST OPENED” distinguished Greene’s goods from those carried by his competitors – Joseph and William Russell, John Mathewson, Benoni Pearce, Thompson and Arnold, Jonathan Russell, and Darius Sessions – who had been advertising in late December and continued in January. Many of those competitors composed longer advertisements and purchased more space in the Providence Gazette. Only one, however, utilized a headline that promoted some aspect of their goods: Thompson and Arnold underscored they set “Very CHEAP” prices. In response, Greene chose an alternate appeal to emphasize in his headline. In the body of his notice he did pledge “to sell as low as any that are sold in this Town,” but only after demanding prospective customers’ attention with his “JUST OPENED” headline.

August 30

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

Aug 30 - 8:30:1766 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 30, 1766).

“Tin-ware, Knives and Forks, Pen-knives, Cuttoe ditto, Raisors, Gimblets.”

Reading an eighteenth-century advertisement can sometimes feel like deciphering a foreign language. Often that is the case when encountering an array of textiles (such as the “Sagathies, Camblets, Bearskins, Duffles, Thicksetts, Half-thicks, Baizes, Callimancoes, Shalloons, Tammies” listed in today’s advertisement), but some advertisements included other sorts of merchandise that modern readers likely have difficulty identifying.

For instance, the portion of today’s advertisement that lists metal goods and hardware includes “Tin-ware, Knives and Forks, Pen-knives, Cuttoe ditto, Raisors, Gimblets.” Taking into account the non-standardized spelling of the eighteenth century, “Raisors” were razors, but what did Nathaniel Greene mean by “Cuttoe ditto” and “Gimblets”?

Carpenters may recognize the gimblet as a hand tool similar to an auger, except smaller. Its size made it ideal for drilling small holes without splitting wood. A variety of colonial artisans may have been especially interested in purchasing gimblets for their workshops, but the tool probably had practical use in many homes as well.

Aug 30 - Gimlet
A Gimblet (“Augers, Gimlets, and Braces,” Colonial Williamsburg).

Deciphering “Cuttoe ditto” requires reading this item as part of a larger phrase: “Pen-knives, Cuttoe ditto.” The “ditto” indicates that readers should substitute the word knives.

So, Greene sold cuttoe knives, but what were those? It seems that question generates some amount of uncertainty, which Steve Rayner and Jim Mullins have addressed in “Cuttoe Knives Revealed” at “Of Sorts for Provincials” (supplemented with eighteenth-century trade cards and illustrations). Rayner and Mullins reach the conclusion that cuttoe knives were clasp knives (also called spring knives), not to be confused with the larger cutteau de Chasse (a variety of short sword) also produced and sold in the eighteenth century.

While this advertisement presents a bit of a mystery for modern readers, Rayner and Mullins consulted other advertisements to answer some of their questions. In particular, three newspaper advertisements printed in the 1760s clarified what kind of knife Greene sold. An advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post (June 23, 1760) listed “cutteau and all other sorts of clasp knives,” another in the Boston News-Letter (March 25, 1762) included “spring Knives & Cutteau ditto,” and one in the Pennsylvania Chronicle (May 9, 1768) mentioned “cutteau pocket knives.” The last two distinguished the cutteau knives from penknives.

Cuttoe knives may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but potential customers in eighteenth-century Providence would have readily recognized this product when they encountered it in Greene’s advertisement.