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.

April 25

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

Apr 25 - 4:25:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (April 25, 1768).

“John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree.”

In the spring of 1768 Charles Dunbar, a gardener, placed an advertisement in the Newport Mercuryto announce that he sold “a Quantity of choice good Garden Seeds.”  Customers could purchase “Early Charlton Peas,” “fine Madeira Onion,” “double curled Parsley,” and a variety of other seeds directly from Dunbar or from “Gilbert Stewart, the North Corner of Banister’s Row” or “John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree,” and “Caleb Earle at the upper end of the Town.”

Dunbar’s advertisement testifies to colonial understandings of urban geography and how to navigate cities, especially smaller ones.  Residences and businesses did not have standardized street numbers in the 1760s. Some of the largest American cities would institute such a system in the final decade of the century, but on the eve of the Revolution colonists relied on a variety of other means for identifying locations.  Sometimes indicating just the street or an intersection gave sufficient direction, such as “North Corner of Banister’s Row.”  Sometimes the descriptions were even more vague, such as “upper end of the Town.” Especially in towns and smaller cities, neither residents nor visitors needed much more information to locate residences and businesses.  Colonists also noted the proximity of shop signs.  In another advertisement in the same issue of the Newport Mercury, Thomas Green listed his location as “the Sign of the Roe Buck in Banister’s Row.” Advertisements from other newspapers printed throughout the colonies in the 1760s suggest that residents of Newport likely used Green’s sign as a marker to identify other locations next door to his shop or across the street or three doors down.  Although associated with particular businesses, shop signs served a purpose other than merely branding the enterprises of their proprietors.

In that regard, shop signs operated as landmarks, another common method for indicating location … and some landmarks communicated more than just location.  Dunbar indicated that prospective customers could find his associate John Stevens “near Liberty-Tree,” a landmark that could not be separated from its political symbolism even as the advertiser used it to facilitate commerce.  As a result, politics infused Dunbar’s advertisement, prompting readers to consider more than just their gardens as they contemplated which seeds to purchase and plant.  Dunbar’s notice was not an isolated incident.  In the wake of both the Stamp Act and, later, the Townshend Act, colonists designated Liberty Trees and quickly incorporated the symbolism into their understanding of urban landscapes.  Advertisers in Boston most frequently invoked the city’s Liberty Tree as a landmark to aid prospective customers in finding their businesses, but Dunbar’s notice demonstrates that advertisers in other cities adopted the same strategy.  Some advertisers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, took similar steps when they stated their location in relation to “Liberty-Bridge.” Even if advertisers did not actively endorse particular political positions, their use of these landmarks demonstrates how quickly residents of their cities integrated symbols of resistance into their points of reference for navigating urban centers.

February 8

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

Feb 8 - 2:8:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (February 8, 1768).

“ADVERTISEMENTS, not exceeding Sixteen Lines, are inserted Three Weeks for Three Shillings.”

In addition to the masthead on the first page, most eighteenth-century newspapers also included a colophon that listed publication information on the final page. At the very least the colophon usually indicated the name of the printer and the place of publication, but many printers inserted much more extensive information in their colophons, often transforming them into advertisements for the goods and services they provided. For instance, in the colophon for the February 8, 1768, edition of the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy James Parker announced that he accepted “Subscriptions, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper” at his printing office on Beaver Street. On the same day, Peter Timothy similarly invited readers of the South Carolina Gazette to submit subscriptions and advertisements, but his colophon also stated that “all Kinds of useful Blanks sold, and all Sorts of Printing-Work is done with Accuracy and Dispatch” in his shop.

Like Parker and Timothy, many printers frequently solicited advertisements in their colophons. After all, advertising generated greater revenues than subscriptions. Far fewer printers, however, indicated how much they charged advertisers to have their notices inserted in the newspaper. In the colophon of the Newport Mercury Samuel Hall did publish such rates: “ADVERTISEMENTS, not exceeding Sixteen Lines, are inserted Three Weeks for Three Shillings, lawful Money, and Six Pence for each Week after.” This schedule indicates how much advertisers paid for both space in the newspaper and the time and labor involved in setting the type. Each advertisement required a minimum payment of three shillings (or thirty-six pence). Hall determined that the space taken up by an advertisement was worth six pence per week. Since the original order had to cover three weeks, that meant that eighteen pence went toward the space the advertisement occupied on the page. The remaining eighteen pence then covered the time and labor involved in setting the type. This sort of payment structure was common among printers who revealed advertising rates in their colophons. Once an advertiser made it worth their time to set the type (usually three weeks, but occasionally four), they continued to publish an advertisement for just the cost of the space. Running an advertisement for even a short time often exceeded the cost of a subscription to the newspaper, making paid notices lucrative for printers.

October 26

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

Oct 26 - 10:26:1767 Champlin Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (October 26, 1767).

“To be SOLD, by CHRISTOPHER CHAMPLIN.”

Regular readers of the Newport Gazette would not have been surprised to see an advertisement from Christopher Champlin on the first page of the October 26, 1767, edition. Champlin regularly turned to his local newspaper to promote the “neat Assortment of European and India GOODS” he imported and sold. Readers may have been surprised, however, to encounter a second advertisement from Champlin on the third page. That deviated from standard marketing practices prior to the American Revolution. Given that newspapers usually consisted of only four pages, advertisers rarely inserted more than one commercial notice in an issue. Was Champlin attempting to gain even more attention for his shop “At the Sign of the Golden Ball” by saturating the Newport Gazette with his advertisements? Did he even intend to publish more than one advertisement that day?

While it is possible that Champlin experimented with running multiple advertisements simultaneously, this situation may have instead resulted from decisions made by the printer in the production of that week’s issue. Note the date on the advertisement on the third page: October 26, 1767. It corresponded exactly to the date of that issue. Compare it to the date on the advertisement on the first page: September 14, 1767. Champlin previously placed this notice, intending that it run for several weeks.

Oct 26 - 10:26:1767 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (October 26, 1767).

Now consider the production process for a weekly newspaper. Printers created the standard four-page newspapers of the colonial period by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half, transforming a single sheet into four pages. This required printing the first and fourth pages on one side at one time and the second and third pages on the other side at another time. This meant that the material on one side of the sheet could have been older, the type could have been set earlier, than the content on the other side.

The first and fourth pages included two standard parts of any issue, the masthead on the first page and the colophon on the last. Except for updating the date and issue number in the masthead, these items did not change from week to week. In the October 26 issue, advertisements that previously appeared in earlier issues filled the fourth page. The type had been set well in advance and simply reused. The first page had other advertisements that continued from previous issues, including Champlin’s advertisement dated September 14. The first page also had two excerpts reprinted from other colonial newspapers, one from the Pennsylvania Chronicle and the other from the New-Hampshire Gazette, dated October 16. All the material on the first and fourth pages could have been prepared and printed early in the week.

The printer likely selected the contents of the second and third pages later in the week, setting the type and printing those pages after the first and fourth pages had been determined. The second page featured news “By several Vessels from London, arrived at Philadelphia and Boston” and then disseminated to other colonies. Given the amount of time it took for ships to cross the Atlantic, the printer likely waited as long as possible to choose the contents of the second page in order to publish the most recent news. The third page had news items from other colonies in the Middle Atlantic and New England, many of them dated after the previous issue of the Newport Gazette. This news had only arrived in the past week. Several advertisements also appeared on the third page, including Champlin’s advertisement dated October 26 and two others dated October 24.

Careful consideration of the contents of the October 26 edition of the Newport Mercury suggests that Champlin may not have intended to run multiple advertisements in that issue. By the time he submitted his new advertisement the printer might have already printed the first and fourth pages, including Champlin’s advertisement dated September 14. Champlin may not even have paid for that advertisement; the printer may have included it as filler in order to complete the page. The shopkeeper certainly wanted to promote his new merchandise he had “Just imported.” Right before the newspaper went to press, he submitted a new advertisement to appear alongside the most recent news.

Christopher Champlin may have attempted an innovative advertising campaign by placing more than one advertisement in a single issue of the Newport Mercury. Taking into consideration the production process for colonial newspapers, however, suggests that this was an accidental rather than intentional aspect of Champlin’s marketing efforts. His advertisements must be considered in the larger context of where they appeared on the page and within the newspaper.

June 29

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

Jun 29 - 6:29:1767 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (June 29, 1767).

“Those Persons who will send their Victuals, ready prepared, may depend upon being well served.”

John Jent, a baker in Newport, sold pies that he made, but that was not the primary purpose of the advertisement he placed in the Newport Mercury in June 1767. Jent informed local residents that he had a “good Oven” for baking “any Sort of Victuals” delivered to him “ready prepared.” The baker heated his oven twice daily to accommodate midday and evening meals.

Like many other advertisers, Jent promised good service and low prices, but that was not the extent of the benefits he afforded his customers. He also provided convenience, though he did not elaborate on that quality of his business. In the 1760s various advertisers played with the idea of convenience without fully developing the concept. They hinted at it, anticipating larger scale articulations that emerged as marketing evolved.

Some shopkeepers, for instance, published lengthy lists of merchandise. Most emphasized consumer choice, but a few began to suggest that large inventories meant customers could enjoy one-stop shopping rather than traipsing from one shop to another. To that end, Thompson and Arnold asserted that “they have been at great Cost and Pains to supply themselves with as great a Variety of articles as can be found in any one Store in New-England.” Lest potential customers miss their meaning, the partners explicitly stated, “As their Assortment is so large they hope to save their Customers the Trouble of going through the Town to supply themselves with the Necessaries they may want.” Others emphasized the locations of their shops, noting that patrons could visit them more easily and expend less time and energy than traveling to other shops. Such was the case when James Brown and Benoni Pearce informed readers of the Providence Gazette that “Customers coming form the Westward may save both Time and Shoe-Leather by calling at their aforesaid Shops” rather than crossing the Great Bridge to the other side of the city. Some advertisers invited customers to send orders by mail. Peter Roberts, who sold imported “Drugs & Medicines,” advertised in the Boston-Gazette that “Orders by Letters from Practitioners and others, in Town or Country, will be as faithfully complied with as if they were present.”

John Jent provided another form of convenience to customers, sparing them the time and resources necessary to bake “Pies, Puddings, &c.” on their own. Instead, they could go about the rest of their daily business and pick up meals ready to eat at times that fit their own schedules.

June 8

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

Jun 8 - 6:8:1767 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (June 8, 1767).

“At as low a Rate for Cash as can be bought at any Shop in Newport.”

In the June 8, 1767, edition of the Newport Mercury, Josias Lyndon advertised that he sold an assortment of imported goods “Very cheap for Cash, or short Credit.” Invoking low prices was one of the most common marketing appeals of the eighteenth century. Lyndon chose a standard method: promoting his own prices without making reference to those of his competitors. In that regard, he advertisement differed from most placed by shopkeepers in that issue. Others went into greater detail about the nature of their prices.

Samuel Lyndon, Jr., for instance, offered his wares “at as low a Rate as can be bought in any Shop in the Town of NEWPORT.” Similarly, David Moore sold dry goods and groceries “AS CHEAP FOR CASH as at any Shop in Newport.” Issachar Polock boldly proclaimed that he parted with his merchandise “at a LOWER PRICE than any advertised before him.” Each of these shopkeepers adapted the standard appeal to price in ways that more directly positioned their shops as preferable to local competitors.

Other advertisers expanded on this trend. Napthaly Hart, Jr., stated that was “determined to sell at as low Rate as any of the Shops in NEWPORT or PROVIDENCE.” In an advertisement that also appeared in the Providence Gazette, William Rogers promised that customers purchased his inventory “as cheap as can be bough at any Shop in Providence.” Both of these shopkeepers seemed as concerned (or, in Rogers’ case, more concerned) with losing business to counterparts in Providence than others in Newport.

Christopher Champlin’s advertisement suggested why Newport’s shopkeepers provided more elaborate appeals to price than usual in the late spring of 1767. “FINDING many of his Brother Shopkeepers,” Champlin declared, “to prevent most of the circulating Cash from being sent to Providence, have greatly lowered the Price of their Goods; therefore … said CHAMPLIN … has to sell … a neat Assortment of GOODS … at as low a Rate for Cash as can be bought at any Shop in Newport.”

Cash was scarce in colonial America. By charging low prices, Newport’s shopkeepers not only competed with each other but also pursued the public interest on behalf of their entire community by not allowing scarce resources to seep away to another port city. Champlin annunciated this as “so laudable a Motive,” one that was “worthy of Imitation.” He was late to the game in lowering his own prices, but managed to position himself, along with his “Brother Shopkeepers” in Newport, as doing something noble when setting his prices.

April 6

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 6 - 4:6:1767 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (April 6, 1767).

To be sold by BENJAMIN MASON, THE Hull of the Sloop THOMAS, … Whale Boats, Whale Irons and Warps.”

I chose this advertisement because it focused on items used by mariners, which were unique from the varied offerings of general stores and other sellers. The advertisement mentions the sale of a “Sloop,” a type of boat, along with many other marine supplies (sails, rigging, anchors). This type of advertisement definitely fits in the newspaper that printed it, the Newport Mercury, published in Newport, Rhode Island. The benefits of colonizing New England included the abundance of ports and access to marine passageways. The geography of New England inspired the establishment of many maritime-based businesses and activities. However, what surprised me was the mention of “Whale Boats” and “Whale Irons.”

As a New Englander I was aware of the booming whaling business of the 1800s. I have even visited the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. But what surprised me was that there was an advertisement regarding the whale trade in Rhode Island in the 1700s. I did some research to learn more about the long history of whaling in New England. Whaling has been a business in the region since the 1600s, dating back to Long Island in 1644 to be exact. Some of the products from whaling throughout the years included whale oil and materials used in candle making. The whaling business was common even before the 1800s!

In addition, I also learned that it was likely this whole advertisement was about whale hunting vessels and equipment. I learned that a sloop was a type of vessel commonly used for whale hunting. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, “[W]halers began to outfit single-masted sailing vessels called sloops to pursue the animals into deeper water.” Any sailor who picked up this newspaper would have at once recognized the common tools used in whaling, which was an important element for both a coastal colony and a diverse economy.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Megan reaches a sound conclusion that everything in this advertisement – from the vessel to the equipment to the supplies – would have been used to outfit an eighteenth-century whaling expedition. Not only would sailors have recognized these tools of the trade, they would have noticed that Benjamin Mason spoke their language, especially when he included “Whale Irons and Warps” in the list of equipment for sale.

Thomas Lytle notes that the tool most people know as the harpoon was commonly called an iron by the officers and sailors who served aboard whaling vessels. Lytle dispels a popular misconception about harpoons. In most circumstances harpoons were not used to kill whales. A different tool, known as a lance, was used for that job. Lytle explains that the harpoon “was meant only to fasten to the whale and act as a hook to fasten the whale to the whaleboat.” That then gave the whale hunters an opportunity to kill the whale before it could escape. Lytle asserts that the harpoon “was the single item that determined the success or failure of a whaling voyage” and the entire industry. In addition to the essential “Whale Irons,” Mason also offered “Warps,” better known to most people as nets, for sale. Any buyer would have been well equipped to sponsor a whaling expedition.

Rhode Island’s leaders wanted to encourage that industry in the eighteenth century, long before the golden age of whaling that has captured the popular imagination. In his History of the American Whale Fishery, Alexander Starbuck explains that “the Rhode Island assembly passed an act for the encouragement of the whale and cod fisheries” in 1731. That act authorized “a bounty of five shillings for every barrel of whale oil, one penny a pound for bone, and five shilling a quintal for codfish, caught by Rhode Island vessels and brought into this colony.”[1] Within two years, vessels from Newport successfully collected the bounties offered for whales.

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[1] Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Industry from Its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876 (Waltham, MA: Published by the Author, 1878), 35.