August 12

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

Aug 12 - 8:12:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 12, 1768).

“Last Night the shops of the subscribers in said Middletown was broke open.”

Many advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers listed all sorts of consumer goods as a means of encouraging readers to visit shops, examine the merchandise, and make purchases. Other advertisements, however, demonstrate that not all colonists acquired goods through those means. Some colonists instead resorted to theft.

Such was the case in Middletown, Connecticut, at the end of July in 1768. On the morning of the final day of the month, George Philips, Asal Johnson, and Francis Whitmore all awoke to discover that their shops had been “broke open” during the night and several items stolen. The thief or thieves grabbed “about 6 dozen barcelona handkerchiefs, of which 2 dozen were black, the rest shaded various colours; 1 dozen black cravats, 3 or 4 pieces of black ribbons, 1 paper of white metal buckles, 1 castor hat a little moth eaten, 2 or 3 penknives,” and currency in several denominations from Philips. Similar items went missing from the shops of Johnson and Whitmore. The volume of stolen goods suggests that the thieves may not have intended these items solely for their own use. Instead, they may have attempted to fence them or otherwise distribute them through what Serena Zabin has termed an informal economy that allowed greater numbers of colonists to participate in the consumer revolution.

Philips and Johnson offered a reward to “Any person who will seize the thief or thieves with any or all of said articles, and secure them so that they shall be brought to justice.” The penalties could be quite severe for those convicted. Two years earlier in Rhode Island, for instance, Joseph Hart became a convict servant, sold into servitude “for the term of three years to satisfy the damages and costs of his prosecution and conviction, for stealing sundry goods.” Colonists who chose to gain access to the consumer revolution via extralegal means weighed the risks and rewards of acquiring goods that might otherwise have remained beyond their reach.

July 1

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

Jul 1 - 7:1:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (July 1, 1768).

The Medicines are the best in their Kind.”

Like many other eighteenth-century printers, publishers, and booksellers, Timothy Green supplemented the income he generated via newspaper subscriptions, advertising fees, job printing, and book and stationery sales by selling other items not specifically related to the book trades. In the July 1, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette, for instance, he placed an advertisement announcing that he sold “An Assortment of Patent Medicines.” He then listed several remedies that would have been very familiar to colonists: “Dr. Hill’s pectoral balsam of Honey,” “Elixer Bardana,” “Anderson’s or Scotch Pills; Turlington’s genuine Balsam of Life; Bateman’s Drops; Locker’s Pills; Godfry’s Cordial; [and] Stoughton’s Stomach Elixer.” He concluded with a bouble “&c.” – the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera – to indicate that he stocked many more medicines. Green anticipated that these nostrums were so familiar to his readers and prospective customers that he did not need to explain which symptoms they cured, though he did briefly note that those who experienced rheumatism or gout should invest in in “Elixer Bardana.” He gave a slightly longer pitch for Dr. Hill’s balsam, promoting it as “a very useful Medicine in Consumptions and all Coughs and Complaints of the Breast, from whatever Cause.”

These patent medicines were brand names in England and its American colonies in the eighteenth century. They were widely available from apothecaries who specialized in compounding and selling medicines, merchants and shopkeepers who sold assortments of general merchandise, and those who followed other occupations (including printers) who sought to supplement their income. Shopkeepers and, especially, apothecaries regularly advertised that they filled orders for patent medicines that they received through the mail, making Bateman’s Drops and Godfrey’s Cordial and the rest even more widely available to colonial consumers. Realizing that he faced local and regional competition, Green offered incentives for customers to purchase their patent medicines from him. In a nota bene, he proclaimed, “The Medicines are the best in their Kind, and will be sold as low as in any retailing Store in America.” In an era of counterfeits, Green promised quality. He also addressed readers skeptical that he could match the prices of shopkeepers who sold patent medicines are part of their usual inventory or apothecaries who specialized in dispensing drugs. He prices were not merely reasonable; they were “as low as in any retailing Store in America.” Although he was a printer by trade, Green offered justifications for colonists to purchase patent medicines from him rather than others more versed in eighteenth-century medicines.

May 6

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

May 6 - 5:6:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (May 6, 1768).

“An Assortment of Ironmongery and Cutlery Wares, too many to be mentioned in an Advertisement.”

The New-London Gazette was a much smaller operation than the newspapers published in colonial America’s largest port cities in the late 1760s. It rarely published supplements, in part because the volume of advertising did not warrant doing so. In particular, its advertisements for consumer goods and services tended to be shorter and less elaborate than those inserted in many other cities. New London just was not as busy a port as others in the region, including Boston, Newport, New York, and Providence. The pages of the New-London Gazette reflected that; visually, most pages of that newspaper did not have the same bustling appearance as the crowded pages of publications from the larger ports.

Yet John-Baker Brimmer’s advertisement in the May 6, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette looked as though it could have been drawn from a newspaper published in another city. In it, Brimmer made some of the standard appeals advanced in eighteenth-century advertisements, including an appeal to price (“the very CHEAPEST RATES”) and an appeal to consumer choice (“A large and compleat ASSORTMENT of ENGLISH GOODS”). He underscored the wide selection prospective customers would encounter at his shop by listing more than two dozen items from among his merchandise, everything from rum and spices to shoes and snuff. He even concluded his list with “&c. &c. &c. &c. &c.” In repeating the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera so many times, he proclaimed that he had a much more extensive inventory than space permitted him to include in his notice. He made the same point in a nota bene that concluded the advertisement: “An Assortment of Ironmongery and Cutlery Wares, too many to be mentioned in an Advertisement.” Merchants and shopkeepers who advertised in newspapers published in other cities sometimes resorted to this strategy, leaving it to readers’ imaginations to envision all sorts of wares available for purchase in their shops.

When it came to marketing consumer goods and services, advertising culture was not as developed in the New-London Gazette as in other newspapers, yet some advertisers, like Brimmer, adopted many of the same methods as their counterparts in larger cities. Brimmer amalgamated basic appeals to price and choice with several means of suggesting that he did indeed stock an array of goods, including a list, claims that his inventory was too extensive to describe in greater detail, and repeated use of “&c.” Such advertisements in smaller newspapers helped to fuel the consumer revolution far beyond colonial America’s major urban ports.

March 11

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

Mar 11 - 3:11:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (March 11, 1768).

The Cutler’s or Whitesmith’s business is still carried on at my shop, and in a much steadier and careful manner than usual.”

As spring approached in 1768, Benjamin Butler, a cutler, needed to do some damage control or risk losing business to his competitors. A journeyman employed in his workshop had tarnished Butler’s reputation by producing inferior goods, causing Butler to take out an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to explain the situation. He hoped to convince prospective customers to give his workshop another chance now that he had remedied the problem.

After announcing that “the Cutler’s or Whitesmith’s business is still carried on at my shop,” Butler declared that work currently undertaken in the shop was completed “in a much steadier and careful manner than usual.” Here he already acknowledged that quality had been lacking for some time, but he then provided an explanation. For several months he had turned over the operation of the shop “to a journeyman, that was great part of his time incapable of performing good work.” Butler did not pull any punches about the reason the journeyman produced shoddy work: “strong drink.” Having made this confession, the cutler petitioned prospective customers to wipe clean the slate. He had resumed doing the jobs that came into the workshop himself. That being the case, he assured “Those who will favour me with their custom” that they could “depend upon being served in the best manner.”

Butler addressed his advertisement to “the public” rather than his former customers. Although he may have contacted some of them individually to make amends, he wanted the entire community to know that he was aware of the problem in his workshop and had addressed it. After all, customers could spread news of their discontent via word of mouth. In case that had happened, Butler harnessed the power of print in his efforts to dispel any lasting harm to his image. By issuing a mea culpa in a newspaper advertisement distributed far and wide in the colony, he encouraged prospective customers not to dismiss his workshop when they had need of a cutler’s services in the future. In this case, Butler advertised not only to incite demand but also to rehabilitate the reputation associated with the goods that came out of his workshop.

February 26

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

Feb 26 - 2:26:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (February 26, 1768).

I will Sell as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.”

Nathaniel Backus, Jr., listed several commodities and their prices in an advertisement he inserted in the February 26, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette. In addition, he offered “a good Assortment of European Goods, which I will Sell as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.” Backus listed his location as Norwich Landing. The New-London Gazette served a region that extended far beyond the port town for which it was named.

Note that Backus did not compare his prices to those in other cities and towns in New England. He confined his comparison to the local marketplace, seeking to assure potential customers that they could not do any better dealing with other local shopkeepers. Few, if any, of his wares – “BEST London Pewter,” “German Serge,” “Barbados Rum,” and “Bohea Tea,” to name just a few of the commodities he listed – had arrived directly at Norwich. Instead, they had likely been shipped first to Boston or New York. Even if they had been transported via a more direct route, this “good Assortment of European Goods” would have passed through the port of New London and its customs house before continuing up the Thames River to Norwich. These additional legs required in shipping the goods to the small town of Norwich likely made them slightly more expensive for retailers to obtain them, affecting the prices Backus and others charged their customers. Shopkeepers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, sometimes favorably compared their prices to those in Boston, New York, or all of New England. Retailers located inland, like Backus in Norwich, however, did not make such appeals at the same rate.

Backus guaranteed the prices he listed in his advertisement: “those that favour me with their Custom, may depend on being served through the Season, at the above Prices.” This allowed for consumers to do some comparison shopping even before visiting his shop. If potential customers considered the prices he listed for select items to be reasonable then they might have been more willing to accept Backus’s assertion that he sold his merchandise “as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.”

February 19

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

Feb 19 - 2:19:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (February 19, 1768)

“Robert Bingham … Makes all Kinds of Surgeons Instruments for Amputation.”

In a notice in the New-London Gazette, Robert Bingham, a “CUTLER, from LONDON,” deployed many of the appeals most commonly included in newspaper advertisements during the eighteenth century. Artisans tended to promote the skills they had acquired in their trade, via training or experience or both. Without much elaboration, Bingham did mention his skill, noting that he completed his work “in the neatest manner.” Like many other advertisers, Bingham also established his connection to London, the center of the empire. For artisans, this often implied skill achieved through training superior to that available in the colonies. More often than not, advertisers of all sorts – whether merchants, shopkeepers, or artisans – incorporated appeals to price into their commercial notices. Bingham again followed the standard practice of the period, declaring that he performed his work at the “most reasonable rate.”

In general, Bingham wrote copy that prospective customers likely found reassuring, if not especially innovative or exciting. His appeals did not particularly distinguish his business from others, but neglecting to insert any of them into his advertisement would have distinguished him in the wrong ways. He needed to do more than merely announce his services. He needed his advertisement to demonstrate that he understood the expectations of potential clients.

Still, the composition of Bingham’s advertisement suggests that he may have attempted to make a more nuanced appeal to skill than just asserting that he made cutlery “in the neatest manner.” He worked in a shop in Lebanon, Connecticut. Residents of this small village and the surrounding area were much more likely to purchase “Table Knives and Forks, – Raisors [razors] – Scissars, – Penknives” than “Surgeons Instruments for Amputation and Trepanning; – also Surgeons Pocket Instruments.” Yet Bingham did not commence his advertisement with the items most likely to meet local demand. Instead, he first listed specialized instruments that required skill and precision in crafting, signaling his abilities to readers without making explicit reference to skill. Bingham may have considered the order he listed his wares a persuasive marketing strategy, one that showcased his skills more effectively than professing his abilities at great length.

February 12

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

Feb 12 - 2:12:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (February 12, 1768).

Lemuel Pattingell … Fabricates and Sells, THE best jerk’d BUTTONS.”

In February 1768, Lemuel Pattingell inserted an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to inform readers that he “Fabricates and Sells, THE best jerk’d BUTTONS.” In addition to their high quality, Pattingell’s buttons were also durable. He proclaimed that they “wear at least twice so long as those Imported.” Potential customers who might have been skeptical of these claimes could examine the buttons for themselves before contacting Pattingell. He announced that “Samples … may be seen at the Printing Office in N. London.” Although brief, this advertisement tapped into concerns about production, consumption, and politics in the colonies and the empire that had gained prominence in the fall of 1767 and continued for months in the public prints.

Colonists found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to a trade deficit with Britain. Many merchants and shopkeepers expressed a preference for dealing in cash rather than credit in their advertisements, hoping to staunch the flow of specie out of the colonies and across the Atlantic. Parliament exacerbated discontent over this situation when it decided to impose new duties on certain imported goods in the Townshend Act. Several weeks before it went into effect in late November 1767, the Boston town meeting voted to initiate a nonimportation agreement to commence at the beginning of the new year. Simultaneously, they also voted to encourage domestic production in whatever way possible, including consuming goods produced in the colonies. As word about these developments spread, both in print and via conversation, other towns adopted similar measures. Consumers’ decisions about which goods to purchase became increasingly politicized as fall became winter.

Pattingell’s advertisement appeared among news and advertisements that advanced those discussions. Elsewhere on the same page of the February 12, 1768, issue of the New-London Gazette, John Armbruester advertised the “Choice GENEVA” he distilled in Norwich. The twelfth and final letter in John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies” dominated the first and second pages. Advertisers often liked to suggest that imported goods, including adornments like buttons, possessed cosmopolitan cachet, but that appeal fell out of favor when the imperial crisis intensified and colonists turned to homespun cloth and other goods produced locally. Pattingell’s emphasis on quality and durability addressed the primary concerns of potential customers at the time he placed his advertisement. In turn, that advertisement further shaped public discourse about the politics of consumption, demonstrating to consumers that they could purchase goods made in the colonies rather than relying on imports.