What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He continues to carry on the Clothier’s Business in every part.”
Abner Thayer stocked a “Variety of very useful and necessary GOODS” at his store in Providence in the summer of 1773. In an advertisement in the June 5 edition of the Providence. Gazette, he advised prospective customers that he “doth not think it necessary to give a long List of Particulars, as he hath a general Assortment.” Furthermore, he “determines to be always furnished with such Articles as are most needed.” The shopkeeper underscored that he “hath taken great Pains to adapt to the Wants of Town and Country.”
He also served colonizers in another way. Thayer informed the public that he “continues to carry on the Clothier’s Business in every Part, and in the best Manner, at his usual Place.” In the same paragraph, he declared that he “hath for Sale a great Variety of Dye-Stuffs” and “colours blue Yarn, so as the same shall be beautiful and durable.” At a glance, modern readers may not realize that when Thayer invoked the “Clothier’s Business” he referred to processing textiles rather than producing garments. The entry for “clothier” in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals the usages of the word in early America.
That entry defines a clothier as “one engaged in the cloth trade: (a) a maker of woollen cloth; (b) esp. one who performs the operations subsequent to the weaving (archaic); (c) a fuller and dresser of cloth (U.S.); (d) a seller of cloth and men’s clothes.” This demonstrates the evolution of the meaning of the word over time, including the most common usage today. Yet readers of the Providence Gazette did not expect Thayer to make or sell garments for men. They understood that he processed textiles. One of the examples provided by the OED, drawn from one of the most famous dictionaries published in America, makes this even more clear. The entry for “clothier” from Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) states, “in English authors, a man who makes cloths. In this sense, I believe, it is not used in the United States; certainly not in New-England. In America, a man, whose occupation is to full and dress cloth.” That Webster made a point about the meaning of “clothier” in New England further indicates how Thayer used the word to describe his services in an advertisement in the Providence Gazette.
When we consult eighteenth-century newspapers and other primary sources, I often have conversations with my students about how we must be cautious readers. Just because some words look familiar to us today does not mean that colonizers used them in the same way we do. Understanding primary sources requires knowledge of the broader context, not just the words on the page. As part of those conversations, I introduce my students to the OED so they can explore and make assessments on their own as they do the research for their contributions to the Adverts 250 Project and other projects.