May 1

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

Providence Gazette (May 1, 1773).

“He proposes to sell for Cash, cheaper than he has ever yet done.”

Several merchants and shopkeepers advertised “English and India GOODS” in the May 1, 1773, edition of the Providence Gazette, noting that they recently received new inventory via ships from London and other English ports.  In addition to that headline, John Brown provided an extensive list of his merchandise.  Most others, however, inserted much shorter advertisements that emphasized consumer choice without cataloging their wares.  Caleb Greene and Welcome Arnold, for instance, promoted a “new and compleat ASSORTMENT of English and India GOODS.”  Similarly, Jabez Bowen hawked a “very neat Assortment of Summer GOODS,” while Ebenezer Thompson advertised a “fresh ASSORTMENT of all Kinds of English and India GOODS.”  If prospective customers wanted to know more about the particulars, they needed to visit those shops and stores.

That was also the case for the “fine ASSORTMENT of Spring and Summer GOODS” that Samuel Young “has just received by the last Vessels from England.”  In his efforts to convince prospective customers to browse his merchandise and make purchases from him rather than his competitors, Young declared that he set prices “cheaper than he has ever yet done.”  He had been in business at the same location “opposite the Baptist Meeting-House” for several years, so many local consumers presumably had some sense of his prices relative to those of Brown, Greene and Arnold, Bowen, Thompson, and other merchants and shopkeepers in the city.  Even if some considered Young’s prices higher than those of his competitors, he gave an incentive to consider shopping in his store when he asserted that he offered his best bargains ever.  He challenged the curious to discover the extent that he slashed prices for themselves.

Although Young lowered his prices, another aspect of his business remained the same.  He advised readers of the Providence Gazette that the “Sign of the Black Boy” marked the location of his shop.  Young received his “fine ASSORTMENT of Spring and Summer GOODS” from England, but consumers knew that route was only one part of transatlantic networks of trade and exchange that connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  Other routes, some of them plied by vessels owned by wealthy merchants in Providence, carried involuntary migrants, enslaved men, women, and children, from Africa to the Americas.  Some of those who survived the Middle Passage labored on plantations in the Caribbean, where they harvested sugar and other “West-India Goods” that Young also advertised.  The “Sign of the Black Boy” testified to the extent that consumer culture in Providence relied on slavery and the slave trade throughout the early modern Atlantic World.  Young offered bargain prices to his customers, but enslaved men, women, and children paid much higher costs in making available the imported goods sold at shops and stores in Providence and other colonial towns and cities.

January 31

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

Jan 31 - 1:31:1770 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (January 31, 1770).


Deciphering the copy in these advertisements may be difficult or even impossible, but the visual images remain as unmistakable in the twenty-first century as they would have been in the eighteenth century. A woodcut depicting a ship at sea adorned half a dozen advertisements, one following right after another, on the third page of the January 31, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. A similar but smaller fleet comprised of three vessels appeared on the first page of that issue. The pages of the newspaper replicated the scene that colonists glimpsed in Charleston’s busy harbor, vessels arriving from faraway ports and departing for new destinations throughout the Atlantic World. This visual imagery testified to the webs of exchange that crisscrossed the ocean and connected colonists in South Carolina to the rest of the continent, the Caribbean, England, mainland Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.

Both people and goods moved along those networks of exchange. Most of the notices featuring images of ships advertised “Freight or Passage.” Their captains stood ready to transport commodities cultivated in South America to markets on the other side of the Atlantic. Other advertisements listed vast assortments of consumer goods “imported in the last Vessels” from London, Bristol, and other English ports. Two advertisements on the same page as the larger flotilla featured images of enslaved men, women, and children, vivid reminders that not everyone who arrived in South Carolina migrated there voluntarily.

With their sails billowing and flags looking as if they were flapping in the wind, the woodcuts of the vessels at sea gave the appearance of motion. They testified to the bustling maritime traffic in one of the largest seaports in the colonies. They reminded readers of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette that even as they went about their daily lives and worried about their deteriorating relationship with Parliament that their corner of the empire was part of vast networks of commercial and cultural exchange that extended throughout the Atlantic and far beyond. The shipping news from the customs house provided a list of ports for readers to peruse, but the visual images in the advertisements, all those ships at sea, conjured much more vivid images that connected colonists to faraway places around the Atlantic and even around the globe.