What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE Butchers who have no stalls in the market of this city … will sell their meat a Half-penny cheaper than those that have.”
By the end of August 1773, it was a notice familiar to readers of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Starting on August 9, the “Butchers who have no stalls in the market of this city” placed an advertisement to inform prospective customers of a considerable bargain available “at their stands in the street above the meal-market.” Collectively, those butchers pledged that they “will sell their meat a Half-penny cheaper” than the butchers fortunate enough to have stalls in the city market. They underscored that they did business on the site “where the new market was intended to have been built.” Undercutting the competition was not merely a marketing strategy. It was a political protest.
Candice L. Harrison provides an overview of the failed attempt to construct a new market in Philadelphia in the early 1770s. “As both the rural and urban population thickened,” she explains, “Philadelphia’s public markets drew in increasing numbers of vendors and consumers. With only a small space of about twenty stalls reserved for the use of ‘country people’ – the Jersey Market – and the rest of the shambles rented to town butchers, residents from the surrounding counties petitioned the colonial legislature for the erection of new market stalls in October 1772.” Soon after, the colony’s General Assembly and the city’s Common Council collaborated on choosing a site to build new market stalls. They planned to start the project in January 1773.
Not everyone, however, was happy about this development. Colonizers who owned property near the proposed site objected. Many expressed concerned that the location of the new market would reduce their property value as well as alter the character of the wide streets in the neighborhood. According to Harrison, Owen Jones, the provincial treasurer, led the opposition, assisted by William Goddard, “the printer of the Pennsylvania Chronicle [who] lent his editorial and printing skills to muster broader public support” against the market. Harrison, Goddard, and their allies wrote newspaper editorials and distributed handbills and pamphlets. While most of the opposition remained peaceful and worked through legal channels, Goddard “issued a call for physical action in a handbill” in June 1773. Building commenced, met with vandalism and theft by some of the opponents. The project came to an end on June 29. The opposition prevailed after “destroying the erection of the market and privileging their own private interests over the ‘public good.’” In the process, they asserted that “their rights of property ownerships stretched out into the public streets” and “articulated a definition of public space that was neither common nor fully public.”
Given the situation, it was no accident that the butchers without stalls in the city market set up shop “where the new market was intended to have been built” as a rejoinder to the coalition of middling artisans and merchants who had successfully obstructed the project. They likely intended that discounted prices would not only mean more customers and revenue for themselves but also greater annoyance for local residents. In addition, it hardly seems a coincidence that they chose to advertise in Goddard’s newspaper. Although they likely did not relish paying their adversary to publish the advertisements, they almost certainly took some satisfaction in using the printer’s own newspaper against him. While Goddard could have refused to run the advertisement, he might not have noticed it if someone else who worked in the printing office accepted it and handled the details, especially considering that Goddard was in the process of opening a printing office in Baltimore and launching the Maryland Journal. That might have been just the distraction the butchers needed to stick it to the printer by advertising their protest in the Pennsylvania Chronicle.
For more on this incident, see Candice L. Harrison, “A Jack of All Spaces: The Public Market in Revolutionary Philadelphia,” paper presented to a joint seminar of the Program for Early American Economy and Society and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, February 16, 2006.