January 8

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 6, 1772).

“Will sell them cheaper than any in the city.”

Charles Oliver Bruff, a goldsmith and jeweler, operated a shop at “the Sign of the Tea-pot, Tankard, and Ear-ring” on Maiden Lane in New York in the early 1770s.  He regularly placed newspaper notices to advise prospective clients of his services.  In the January 6, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, for instance, he declared that he “makes or mends any kind of diamond or enamel’d work in the jewellery way” and “makes all sorts of silversmiths work, and mends old work.”  In addition, he mended “ladies fans in the neatest manner and at the lowest price” and sold rings, lockets, “hair jewels,” and a variety of other jewelry.

Bruff sought to draw attention to two other aspects of his business.  He informed readers that he had “just finished some of the neatest dies for making sleeve buttons, with the neatest gold cuts to them to stamp all sorts of gold buttons, silver, pinchbeck, or brass.”  Colonizers who desired such distinctive buttons could acquire them from Bruff … and at bargain prices.  He pledged to “sell them cheaper than any in the city.”  In addition to buttons, Bruff also highlighted his interest in working with “gentlemen merchants that travel the country, or pedlars,” anticipating that they would purchase in quantity for resale.  The goldsmith asserted that peddlers “may depend on being used well.”  That included maintaining good relationships as well as offering low prices.  Bruff confided that for such customers he would “make any kind of work cheaper than they can get it in the city elsewhere.”

Whether hawking buttons, cultivating relationships with retailers, or mending fans for fashionable ladies, Bruff deployed superlatives to compare his prices to those of his competitors in the bustling port city.  He did not merely declare that he offered comparable low prices; instead, he claimed that he undersold other goldsmiths and jewelers in New York, hoping that this strategy would bring customers into his shop.

February 10

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

New-York Journal (February 7, 1771).

“A great many other articles, suitable for traveling merchants.”

John Watson, a merchant, sold a variety of goods at his store on Cart and Horse Street in New York.  In an advertisement in the February 7, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he listed dozens of items ranging from textiles to “Mens and womens shoes” to “Men, women and boys, best silk gloves and mitts” to “Table spoons, and best Holland quills.”  This catalog of goods, arranged in two columns, presented consumers an array of choices that Watson hoped would entice them to visit his store and make selections according to their tastes.  He also promised that they would encounter an even greater assortment of merchandise, “a great many other articles … too tedious to enumerate.”  Many merchants and shopkeepers who emphasized consumer choice with their lengthy litanies of goods doubled down on that appeal by proclaiming that even with as much space as their advertisements occupied in colonial newspapers it still was not enough to do justice to everything in their inventories.

Watson did not address consumers exclusively.  He declared that he sold his wares “wholesale or retail,” supplying shopkeepers, peddlers, and others who purchased to sell again as well as working directly with consumers.  He noted that he stocked goods “suitable for traveling merchants” to carry to smaller towns and into the countryside.  Participating in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century was not a privilege reserved for residents of the largest port cities.  Colonists did not need to live in New York and visit Watson’s store in order to purchase the fabrics, ribbons, buttons, snuff boxes, playing cards, and other items he imported and sold.  Instead, those who lived at a distance made purchases via the post or at local shops or from peddlers and “traveling merchants” who helped in distributing consumer goods beyond the major ports.  Bustling cities like New York, Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia certainly had higher concentrations of shops, affording ready access to consumer goods to local residents, but those places did not have monopolies when it came to the rituals of consumption.  Watson, like many other merchants, used newspaper advertising for multiple purposes, seeking to incite demand among local customers while simultaneously distributing goods to retailers and peddlers who made them available to even greater numbers of customers.

August 19

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

Aug 19 - 8:19:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 19, 1768).

“The Owner will stay but a Fortnight in Town.”

Henry Appleton and Richard Champney placed advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette frequently. Members of their community likely knew where to find Appleton “At his shop in Portsmouth” and Champney “At his shop near Mr. John Beck’s, Hatter.” In the small port, both their faces and their shops would have been familiar. One of their competitors, however, was not nearly as familiar to the residents of Portsmouth and the surrounding area. An advertisement that appeared in the August 19, 17678, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette listed many wares quite similar to those stocked by Appleton and Champney, but it did not specify the name of the seller.

Instead, it announced that “THE undermention’d GOODS were lately IMPORTED, and will be SOLD on very reasonable terms at Mr. STAVERS’s Tavern in PORTSMOUTH.” The unnamed advertiser stated that he “will stay but a Fortnight in Town.” From all appearances, Appleton and Champney found themselves in competition with a peddler. They likely did not appreciate his brief interlude in the local marketplace. Peddlers were disruptive. They diverted business away from the shops where customers usually acquired goods. In this case, the advertisement encouraged potential customers to head to a tavern to examine ribbons, gloves, fans, necklaces, and a variety of other “Baubles of Britain” (to borrow the evocative phrase from T.H. Breen’s examination of the consumer revolution in America in the eighteenth century). Those “incline[d] to buy … will find it to their Advantage in dealing with” the unnamed itinerant. Local shopkeepers like Appleton and Champney were probably none too pleased about this alternative means for their prospective customers to obtain many of the same trinkets they sold, especially not when the peddler implied that he offered lower prices than residents would otherwise encounter in Portsmouth.

Itinerant hawkers who traversed the roads from town to town in the late colonial period provided an alternate means of distributing many of the goods that were at the center of the consumer revolution. They complemented the shops and auctions that otherwise placed an array of merchandise in the hands and households of customers, usually to the chagrin of local entrepreneurs who did not appreciate the intrusion.