April 3

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 3 - 4:3:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 3, 1767).

“West India RUM by the Hogshead or Barrel, … Good Molasses.”

I chose this advertisement because I recognized an important product, “West India Rum.” The economy of the British North American colonies greatly depended on a transatlantic system of export and import. This included several items from around the globe, like fabrics, tea, and rum.

Rum was especially integral to the colonies’ economy, in part because alcohol was favored for consumption. One estimate claims that for every adult male approximately 20 gallons of rum were consumed per year.[1] The high rate of consumption led to demand for more rum. One way to have a surplus was to distill molasses and create more rum. This created a booming industry in the colonies. According to John J. McCusker, “The distilling of rum from molasses created a substantial colonial industry, employing local capital, management skills, and labor. Steadily in demand, rum and molasses represented for the colonial economy almost a currency.”[2] Not only was rum a commodity traded around the world, distilling it was also an opportunity to establish businesses within the colonies and contribute to the local economy.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Unlike modern advertisements that often prominently feature prices as a means of enticing potential customers (and manipulating their perceptions, such as $99.99 rather than $100), eighteenth-century advertisements rarely listed prices for the goods they marketed. Some merchants and shopkeepers deviated from that rule, especially those who sold some of the most popular commodities that retailers and end-use consumers tended to purchase in volume.

For instance, in the same issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette as today’s advertisement placed by Noah Parker, three of his competitors did include prices for some, but not all, of the commodities they listed. Henry Appleton noted prices for “Loaf Sugar” and “BEST London BOHEA TEA, by the Hundred, Dozen, or single Pound,” but did not reveal how much he charged for chocolate, rice, or “All sorts of West India Goods.” Edward Sherburne also the “Best of BOHEA TEA,” barely undercutting Appleton’s price: £4 15s Old Tenor per pound instead of £4 16s OT per pound. Like Parker, George Turner provided prices for only some of his goods (rum, sugar, coffee, and “COTTON-WOOL”).

Richard Champney perhaps came closest to modern marketing methods with his version of “limited time only” prices for coffee, which he sold at “22s. Old Tenor per pound.” However, he did not “promise to sell at that Price long, as the late remarkable Frost in the West Indies, may have the same effect on Coffee, as on Limes; therefore probably that Article may be scarce and dear.” Champney used temporarily low prices and the specter of scarcity to drive customers to his shop.

That four advertisers listed prices in a single issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette was remarkable and extraordinary. It was not uncommon for entire issues to be devoid of specific pricing in advertisements. Most merchants and shopkeepers adopted the approach taken by Noah Parker, relying on the goods themselves to attract customers but not specifying prices in the advertisements. Many made general appeals to price, promising “low costs” or “reasonable rates.” Parker did not go even that far. Instead he invited “those who desire to know the Price to call and see the Articles.” In so doing he echoed an argument sometimes made by other advertisers: specifying a particular price was meaningless in the absence of examining the quality of the merchandise.

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[1] John J. McCusker, “The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775,” Journal of Economic History 30, no. 1 (March 1970): 247.

[2] McCusker, “Rum Trade,” 247.

 

March 22

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 22 - 3:20:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 20, 1767).

Choice Green Coffee.”

When it comes to choices of drink when thinking of the colonial and Revolutionary eras, the first one that probably comes to mind is tea. This advertisement is interesting because it sold coffee instead. According to Christina Regelski, coffee was sometimes used as a way of showing wealth or status in the colonial era due to the expensiveness of producing the coffee grounds from the beans. In the southern colonies slaves were often in charge of grinding the coffee beans in the kitchens for their wealthy owners. Sadly, they had no access to the coffee they prepared.

Coffeehouses became hubs of information that could be accessed by many in the eighteenth century. Similar to taverns, men from any status and station could go to coffeehouses to drink coffee and discuss what was going on in their lives and their colony. John Adams even noted the importance of coffeehouses in a letter to James Warren in 1775: “the Debates, and Deliberations in Congress are impenetrable Secrets: but the Conversations in the City, and the Chatt of the Coffee house, are free, and open.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Some colonists very well may have encountered Noah Parker’s advertisement for “Choice Green Coffee” when they visited a coffeehouse, such as the Crown Coffeehouse on Queen Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the same issue that Parker hawked coffee, Isaac Williams placed an advertisement announcing that he had just opened the “CROWN Coffee-House” and provided many amenities for customers (including “the best of LIQUORS” and “large and small Entertainment, provided in the most genteel manner” in addition to coffee). At many eighteenth-century coffeehouses, the amenities included newspapers.

As Ceara notes, coffeehouses were hubs for exchanging information in the eighteenth century. Patrons certainly traded stories, but they also had access to newspapers the proprietors provided for their convenience and entertainment. Customers read newspapers to learn about politics and current events that affected their daily lives and commercial transactions. As a result, the advertisements that appeared in the New-Hampshire Gazette and other colonial newspapers had a far wider reach than just local subscribers. Visitors to the Crown Coffeehouse most likely had access to recent issues of many newspapers other than just the New-Hampshire Gazette, especially newspapers from Boston and other parts of New England, but also from elsewhere in the colonies, the Caribbean, and London. Similarly, coffeehouses in other colonial port cities also provided newspapers from near and far for patrons to consult.

In addition to sharing news and gossip, coffeehouses were also places to conduct business. Merchants gathered to settle accounts in comfortable surroundings. Vendue sales or auctions also took place in coffeehouses. Noah Parker may have visited the Crown Coffeehouse to meet with associates interested in purchasing the various commodities he listed in his advertisement. Despite the atmosphere of gentility that Williams and other proprietors cultivated, coffeehouses were also sometimes the venue for buying and selling slaves. Although not as rowdy as taverns, coffeehouses were busy places for exchanging information and conducting business in the era of the Revolution.

March 9

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

Mar 9 - 3:7:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 7, 1766).

“Very neat double gilt pinch back buckles, white and yellow mettle ditto.”

Sometimes it can be a bit disorienting to read eighteenth-century advertisements. Some of the goods on offer seem unfamiliar to twenty-first-century readers (as is certainly the case in today’s advertisement), but the frequent use of the word “ditto” can also cause confusion.

  • “steel snuffers, common ditto”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen ditto”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case ditto”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring ditto”
  • “mens sturrips, womens ditto”

In the eighteenth century, “ditto” had the same meaning as it does today: the aforesaid, the above, the same. Accordingly, the examples above should be read as:

  • “steel snuffers, common snuffers”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen fire shovels and tongs”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case locks and brasses”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring locks”
  • “mens sturrips, womens sturrips”

Eighteenth-century readers would have made the transition easily, but (if students in any early American course I have ever taught are representative of modern Americans) today’s readers do not speak the language of the eighteenth century, nor do they recognize all of its conventions for writing. This sometimes leads to confusion about what advertisements, as well as manuscripts and other kinds of printed documents, meant to communicate.

“Ditto.” Is that just a quaint way that Americans expressed themselves in the eighteenth century? It actually had a very practical use. Imagine Noah Parker writing out this advertisement before dropping it off at the printing office. Paper may have been in short supply, but his time and efforts were both precious to him as well. When writing with a quill pen, inserting “ditto” to replace longer words and phrases reduced the amount of writing that needed to be done.

It’s impossible to know how Parker originally composed this particular advertisement, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had used “do.” (itself an abbreviation for “ditto”) repeatedly, reducing the amount of writing he had to do with a quill pen significantly. (I’ve looked through enough account books to know that “do.” appeared repeatedly, sometimes as the most frequent word on a page.) The printer may have expanded “do.” to “ditto” at various places in the advertisement, though there are several examples of the much less common “dit.” standing in for “ditto.” It’s likely that both the printer and the advertiser made decisions about how to save time and space in the process of creating this advertisement.

BONUS: “&c. &c. &c.”

The advertisement ends with what appears to be a nonsensical collection of letters and symbols, at least to twenty-first-century readers. In the eighteenth century, however, writers and printers also had methods for abbreviating “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” (and others, and so forth, and so on). Instead of “etc.” they used the more economical “&c.” (I’m not certain when the transition from “&c.” to “etc.” took place, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the relative ease of typing the latter compared to the former on a QWERTY keyboard.)