June 5

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

Providence Gazette (June 5, 1773).

“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.

April 20

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 20, 1773).

“He likewise proposes keeping an ORDINARY, every Day.”

When Francis Morelli, a pastry cook, moved to a new location in the spring of 1773, he informed “his Friends and Customers” in Charleston with an advertisement in the South-Carolina. Gazette and Country Journal.  He assured them that he continued to offer the same services, baking “all Sorts of Pies, Tarts, Cakes, Jellies,” and other pastries that customers could purchase at his shop or have “sent to any Gentleman’s House on the shortest Notice.”

Morelli also took the opportunity to announce that he “proposes keeping an ORDINARY, every Day, where Gentlemen who please to favour him with their Custom, may depend on being provided with the best the Markets can afford.”  He also served “Wine, Punch, Beer,” and other beverages.  The context makes clear to modern readers that Morelli served food.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives additional information about how the term “ordinary” was used in the British Atlantic world in the eighteenth century.

Three related definitions concern foods, including “customary fare; a regular daily meal or allowance of food; (hence, by extension) a fixed portion, an allowance of anything,” and “a meal regularly available at a fixed price in a restaurant, public house, tavern, etc. Formerly also: the company frequenting such a meal, the ‘table.’”  The OED describes the former as “Obsolete” and the latter as “Now chiefly historical.”

The third definition captures the term “ordinary” as used by Morelli in his advertisement: “an inn, public house, tavern, etc., where meals are provided at a fixed price; the room in such a building where this type of meal is provided.”  Similar to the other entries associated with foods and serving meals, this definition is “Now historical and archaic.”  The entry includes more than a dozen examples of the word in use, the earliest dating from 1590, as well as additional notes about its usage.  “In Britain in the 17th-18th centuries,” the entry explains, “the more expensive ordinaries were frequented by men of fashion, and the dinner was usually followed by gambling; hence the term was often used as synonymous with ‘gambling-house.’”  Another note addresses the use of the word in America: “In the U.S., the southern states, esp. Virginia, continued to use ordinary in this sense into the 19th cent., while other states used tavern.”

I plan to file away this advertisement for teaching purposes because it is such a great example of the English language as spoken and written in the eighteenth century sometimes requires “translation” when twenty-first century readers encounter “historical and archaic” terms, even when the words look familiar.  In addition, it presents an opportunity for teaching students how to use the Oxford English Dictionary as a “translation tool.”  I envision an in-class exercise in which I direct students to the entry for “ordinary” but allow them to seek out the relevant definitions (in this case 12a, 12b, and, especially, 12c) on their own before having a discussion about what we all learn from examining the various elements of those definitions provided by the OED.