March 13

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

Mar 13 - 4:10:1768 Pennsylvania Journal
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal (March 10, 1768).

“Tea pots and sugar-pots … Slop-bowls.”

Cornelius Bradford, a pewterer, operated a shop “At the sign of the dish in Second Street” in Philadelphia. According to an advertisement that appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal, he made and sold “All Sorts of Pewter Ware,” including “Dishes and plates of all sizes,” “Half pint and gill tumblers,” “Porringers,” and “Saltcellars.” Like many other shopkeepers and artisans who placed advertisements in colonial newspapers, he provided a list of his wares. When it appeared in print, however, Bradford’s list had a fairly unique appearance, suggesting that either the advertiser or the compositor aimed to use typography to distinguish that notice from others in the same newspaper.

Advertisements that included a list of merchandise most commonly took the form of dense paragraphs that extended anywhere from five to dozens of lines. The shorter advertisements occupied the traditional square, often the unit that printers used when determining prices for paid notices, but others extended for half a column or more. Such dense advertisements demanded active reading on the part of prospective customers. In other instances, advertisements that listed goods also featured typography that made it easier for readers to peruse those items. Such advertisements sometimes divided the space to create narrower side-by-side columns within the column. Each line then listed only one or two items.

Two advertisements in the Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal distributed on March 10, 1768, were designed with columns instead of dense paragraphs. Joseph Wood’s advertisement for textiles took the standard format: two columns of equal width. Cornelius Bradford’s advertisement, on the other hand, looked quite different from the side-by-side columns that usually appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal and other colonial newspaper. Rather than two columns of equal width, it had one wider column on the left and one narrower column on the right with the merchandise sorted accordingly.

This demonstrates that someone seriously contemplated the typography of the advertisement. Who? Ultimately the compositor set the type. Was it set exactly according to the copy submitted by Bradford? Or did the compositor revise the order of Bradford’s wares in order to create a more efficient and visually attractive use of space? What kinds of instructions did Bradford give when he submitted the copy? Did the advertiser and the compositor consult with each other at any point in the production of the advertisement? Bradford’s advertisement raises intriguing questions about the process for publishing newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century. It also testifies to the careful consideration that went into the visual elements of some advertisements. Although composed entirely of text, Bradford’s advertisement had a unique graphic design that set it apart from others of a similar format.

January 15

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

Pennsylvania Journal (January 15, 1767).

“To the PRINTER, WHEREAS a very extraordinary newspaper hath lately appeared in your paper …”

Advertisements for “runaway wives,” women who defied the practices of patriarchy and the laws of coverture by disobeying or abandoning their husbands, frequently appeared in colonial newspapers. On January 15, 1767, alone a total of six such advertisements appeared in Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal, alerting residents of Philadelphia and its hinterland not to trust half a dozen women, nor to extend credit to them.

Most advertisements for runaway wives were fairly brief, such as this one that appeared on the first page of the Pennsylvania Journal: “January 15. WHEREAS Catherine the wife of Stephen Wright, of Bristol Township, Bucks county, has absconded and refused to live with him, this is to forewarn all persons from trusting her on my account, as I will pay no debts by her contracted after the date hereof, STEPHEN WRIGHT.” The indigent husband resorted to stock language and formulaic constructions in making this announcement, inserting the appropriate names, dates, and locations.

Charles Tennent, in an advertisement dated January 1, opted for more original language in a much lengthier advertisements that spelled out a variety of charges against his wife, Jane. He reported that she “hath departed from me without my consent, after having extravagantly laid out large sums of money without my knowledge; has threatened to run me much more in debt than she has already done, and not withstanding my frequent earnest, and tender requests to her, she has refused to return to my house and live with me, according to our solemn obligations.” Charles then devoted the second half of his notice to disavowing any debts contracted by Jane.

Its length alone made that advertisement extraordinary, but even more significantly it garnered a response from the runaway wife, a woman who felt she had been defamed by her unjust and unreasonable husband. In an advertisement twice the length of that placed by the disgruntled Charles, Jane defended her reputation and told her side of the dispute “In order to do myself justice, and let the matter in a clearer light to the public than what it has yet been represented.” She made accusations that Charles had “used me extremely ill, and not treated me like a wife.” She also complained that her husband had deprived of her female slave as well as her horse and carriage. To make matters even worse, he had refused to allow her to take a horse when she needed to have a tooth extracted. In turn, she set out on foot and upon returning home discovered that in the interim Charles had placed advertisements about her conduct. Furthermore, she disputed his claims that she spent money extravagantly, arguing that any purchases she made came out of the estate she brought to the marriage. From her perspective, she had been generous in providing clothes for Charles and his children (who may have been from a previous marriage, making them stepchildren to Jane). To make matters worse, Jane stated that she had attempted to return to their household but Charles refused to admit her and was not even willing to meet with her “before any gentlemen in town to talk the matter face to face.” She put up a spirited defense that may have been considered unseemly for a woman yet simultaneously shamed her husband for his poor conduct.

Advertisements for runaway wives demonstrate the agency of colonial women who sought to escape the confines and, in some cases, abuses of patriarchal marriage. In most cases they must be read against the grain because they are accounts written and shaped by men about women. Jane Tennent, however, did not leave it to her friends and neighbors – or historians – to consider her take on the events her husband described. She offered a response that recast her husband as the villain rather than herself as improperly deviating from the ideals of virtuous femininity.


As an aside about another aspect of the history of advertising, note that Jane Tennent reported that her husband “pasted up advertisements round the neighbourhood to the same effect he has done here” in the Pennsylvania Journal. Charles went beyond simply placing an advertisement in the local newspaper. Instead, he contracted a bit of job printing, a separate broadside of unspecified size, that he distributed on his own and strategically placed in places around his own neighborhood. This suggests that pasting up advertisements in colonial cities and towns was fairly common, that residents experienced a visual and textual landscape of advertising in their everyday lives.

December 18

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

Pennsylvania Journal (December 18, 1766).

“A likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis.”

Regular visitors know that students from my Colonial America class have actively participated in the project over the past three months, both as guest curators of the original Adverts 250 Project and as curators of a newer initiative, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. These two digital humanities and public history projects gave students opportunities to learn about consumer culture and slavery in colonial America, as well as the connections of each to commerce, culture, and politics. As curators of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, each student identified all advertisements concerning slavery published during a particular week in the fall of 1766. For their final exam, each student wrote an essay in which they used those advertisements, supplemented by other primary and secondary sources from the course, to examine the history of slavery in colonial America.

Randle Mitchell’s advertisement explicitly demonstrates the connections between the emphasis on marketing and consumer culture in the Adverts 250 Project and the focus on enslavement and commerce in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. It also incorporates aspects of slavery in colonial America that I especially wanted students to uncover and learn by working on the project and taking the course. Drawing on other advertisements, most students commented on many of the aspects of Mitchell’s advertisement that I consider significant.

At first glance, Mitchell’s advertisement appeared to be a standard commercial notice about “A Good assortment of European and India goods” recently imported. However, Mitchell added a nota bene (almost as long as the rest of the advertisement) that offered “a likely, healthy, young Negro lad, named Adonis” for sale. In the colonial marketplace, enslaved men, women, and children were just as much commodities as all the so-called “Baubles of Britain” that merchants imported and shopkeepers peddled.

Mitchell’s advertisement appeared repeatedly in both the Pennsylvania Journal and the Pennsylvania Gazette. Because most people associate slavery with the South in the decades before the Civil War, many students were astonished to discover how extensively slavery was practiced in northern colonies before the American Revolution. They deployed advertisements like this one to argue Pennsylvania, other Middle Atlantic colonies, and New England were “societies with slaves” even if they were not “slave societies” like their counterparts in the Chesapeake and Lower South.

Mitchell noted that Adonis “can attend and do any business about a gentleman’s house, or may do country business,” such as work on a farm. Just as many people associate slavery with the antebellum South, they also assume that slaves worked on plantations. The northern colonies did not develop plantation economies. Some slaves worked on farms, laboring alongside masters rather than with a gang of other slaves and an overseer. Like Adonis, others worked in domestic service, especially in urban ports in the eighteenth century. Some also learned special skills as artisans. This advertisement helps to demonstrate that slaves lived and worked in a variety of place and under a variety of circumstances during the colonial period.

I was generally pleased if students made all of these points in their final essays. I was especially impressed, however, by any who examined the reason Mitchell wanted to sell Adonis: “for no fault but want of present employ for him.” Mitchell did not have enough work to keep his young slave busy. That might have been cause to set the young man free, yet Mitchell opted instead to sell him to a new master, underscoring that the enslaved youth was a commodity and an investment. Several students commented on (and applauded) the agency demonstrated by slaves who ran away, the subject of a great many advertisements, but the most astute also noted that colonists like Mitchell also exercised agency in the choices they made (though in such cases they did not warrant any sort of applause or endorsement). Mitchell did not have to sell Adonis. Instead, he chose to sell the young man. Even in the wake of demonstrations against the Stamp Act and continued vigilance about Parliament’s attempts to “enslave” the American colonies, slaveholders like Mitchell continued to buy and sell men, women, and children.

December 11

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

Pennsylvania Journal (December 11, 1766).

“Philip Coleman peddler, my husband; for some time past has eloped from me.”

Many colonists experienced geographic mobility during the eighteenth century. Even as some used their ability to move from place to place to seize opportunities and improve their lot in life, others found such mobility problematic, especially in the cases of slaves and indentured servants who ran away from their masters.

While advertisements for unfree laborers constituted the vast majority of runaway advertisements in the eighteenth century, advertisements for wives who had “eloped from” (rather than with) their husbands appeared with such frequency that no one would have considered them extraordinary in any particular way. In the larger urban ports newspapers sometimes featured multiple advertisements concerning runaway wives in a single issue, usually following a set formula announcing that a woman had “eloped from” her husband, that she had behaved poorly before her departure, and, perhaps most importantly, that merchants, shopkeepers, and others were not to extend her credit or otherwise allow her to make purchases on her husband’s account.

Advertisements for runaway husbands, on the other hand, were much more rare. Elizabeth Coleman published her advertisement about “Philip Coleman peddler, my husband,” only after he had “eloped from” her. That would have been bad enough, but he also made efforts to publicly damage her reputation “by inserting in the publick paper an advertisement very much to my prejudice.”

Elizabeth Coleman was not in a position to replicate the standard advertisement for a runaway wife; as a married woman, a feme covert, she could not instruct others not to trust her husband on her account. Instead, she resorted to defending herself in no uncertain terms. She lamented that her husband’s advertisement “scandalously vilified my character.” It presented accusations “contrary to my known character.” As a feme covert, Elizabeth would not have owned property independently of her husband; her reputation – her character – was her most valuable possession. Given the very public aspects of the rupture in the Coleman household, Elizabeth may have needed an unsullied reputation more than ever just for her everyday survival.

Just as her husband had used the power of the press to level accusations against her, Elizabeth Coleman published a counter advertisement as her means of “justifying myself.” Unlike advertisements for runaway wives that relied solely on the word of the husband, Elizabeth relied on her community to affirm her declarations concerning her character and her relationship with her husband. Philip’s advertisement was “villanous and false, which is well know to al- my neighbours.”

N.B. I am examining newspapers printed in Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1766 in hopes of identifying Philip Coleman’s original advertisement.

September 11

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

Sep 11 - 9:11:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (September 11, 1766).

“The above articles all in the newest and genteelest taste.”

Milliners and shopkeepers often promoted their merchandise by noting that it had been imported from London or other English ports, suggesting that this gave their wares special cachet in terms of both taste and quality. They frequently named both the ship and the captain that transported their goods across the Atlantic, which allowed savvy newspaper readers to recognize vessels recently listed in the shipping news elsewhere in the newspaper. In this way, potential customers could assess for themselves that an advertiser stocked the most current fashions.

In most instances, milliners and shopkeepers relied on networks of correspondence involving faraway merchants and producers to obtain the goods they sold to colonists. American retailers – and the customers they served – had to trust that they had indeed received merchandise currently fashionable in metropolitan London, though many suspected that the distance that separated them from the capital allowed correspondents to pawn off leftover or undesirable goods that otherwise would not have been sold.

In this advertisement, however, Ann Pearson stated that she had “Just returned from London” and had imported a vast array of textiles and accouterments for personal adornment. Rather than accept whatever goods distant correspondents dispatched, she had an opportunity to select which items she wished to offer to her customers. She concluded her advertisement with an assurance that the “above articles [were] all in the newest and genteelest taste.” Unlike most other milliners and shopkeepers who sold imported English goods, Pearson was in a unique position to make this claim, having witnessed current styles in London herself rather than relying on the good will of intermediaries and middlemen.

August 21

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

Aug 21 - 8:21:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (August 21, 1766).

“A Parcel of healthy SLAVES, men, women, boys, and girls.”

This advertisement reveals a hidden history of slavery that has been largely forgotten in the United States, forgotten because it is both convenient and comfortable to overlook, forgotten because it disrupts familiar narratives about when and where Americans traded slaves and owned enslaved men, women, and children. In particular, the slave trade and the presence of slaves are associated with colonies in the Chesapeake and the Lower South. Most people tend to think of those colonies that became the northeastern United States as territories that never practiced slavery or profited from the slave trade.

This story has not been completely overlooked. Many historians of early America have devoted their careers to uncovering and examining the histories of both the presence of enslaved peoples in northern colonies as well as the networks of trade and commerce that inextricably tied northern colonies and their economic welfare to participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In addition to the work of these specialists, other historians have increasingly integrated slavery in the northern colonies and states into the larger narrative of American history they include in their publications for fellow scholars and in the course content they deliver to students. Many public historians have also sought to address slavery conscientiously and responsibly in their efforts to present the past to audiences beyond traditional classroom settings.

Yet it seems fair to continue to describe this as a hidden history, an intentionally overlooked history. The students who enroll in my early American history courses every year are more likely than not to assume that slavery was not a part of the New England experience. In a variety of forums, public historians report that they regularly encounter visitors either unaware of the history of slavery in northern colonies or willfully resistant to acknowledging its existence alongside the stories they want and expect to be told.

Today’s advertisement, however, makes clear that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were indeed part of everyday life and commerce in places other than Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Today’s advertisement announced that “A Parcel of healthy SLAVES, men, women, boys, and girls” were “Just imported, from the river Gambia” and would be “sold upon low terms, by James and William Harvey, merchants” in Philadelphia. Even in Pennsylvania, “The quality of the slaves from the abovementioned river, is so well known, that nothing further is necessary to recommend them.” In other words, colonists in the north had a more than passing awareness and familiarity with slaves and the transatlantic slave trade.

The advertisement does not mention that this “Parcel of healthy SLAVES” consisted of 100 men, women, and children. Nor does it mention that 120 had been loaded on the Ranger off the coast of Africa, but twenty had died during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Those numbers come from other sources that have been compiled at Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Those sources also reveal that the Ranger sailed directly from Africa; it did not make stops in other American ports. These men, women, and children were always intended for sale in one of the northern colonies, not any of the colonies in the Chesapeake or Lower South that operated on a plantation economy.

Today’s advertisement is just one piece of evidence, but it is not the only piece. Slavery was a significant part of the colonial experience throughout the colonies, not just in the southern colonies. It is part of American history that cannot be overlooked, at least not if we want to be honest and truly understand the past that has led to the present.

August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:7:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (August 7, 1766).

“HAVING lately seen and advertisement … which not only aims at discrediting certain Anchors …”

William Hawxhurst of New York placed an extensive advertisement in response to the charges Daniel Offley made about the anchors sold in Philadelphia in an equally extensive advertisement that appeared in an earlier issue of the Pennsylvania Journal.

Hawxhurst reiterated some of the claims Offley made and then set about dismantling them via a point-by-point rebuttal. He did so not only to defend his own reputation and the quality of the product he sold, but also as “a piece of justice I owe to the public.” Potential customers, Hawxhurst asserted, would benefit once he set the record straight; they deserved to be as well-informed as possible by the producers and suppliers of the goods they contemplated purchasing.

Hawxhurst addressed the process of making anchors, especially forging the necessary iron, in some detail, perhaps exceeding the technical knowledge of most readers of the Pennsylvania Journal (but maybe not that of those most likely to purchase anchors). On the other hand, he then mobilized appeals that any reader would understand.

Rather than choose between “assertions” made by either advertiser, Hawxhurst preferred “to appeal to experience, as a more satisfactory voucher to the public.” To that he end, he proclaimed, “Certain it is, that my iron has gained a high reputation for its purity, both in England and America.” Furthermore, the smith who made Hawxhurst’s iron into anchors had been at the trade longer than Offley. Experience mattered. In addition, Hawxhurst’s ironworks had “furnished anchors for sale at Boston, New-Hampshire, Bermuda, South-Carolina, Virginia, and Jamaica” in addition to New York. Furthermore, he had received no complaints but instead had “heard much of their goodness and superior excellency.” Finally, Hawxhurst had always offered the same sorts of guarantees that Offley promoted, so customers would not gain any advantage by purchasing from them.

Offley had publicly stated that he would refuse to repair any anchors purchased from competitors. Hawxhurst made it clear what he thought of that ploy: “I give the public assurance, that in case of any such accident, my friend in Philadelphia, has orders upon the return of the anchors so failing, or such part of it as remains, to supply another in its stead; so that Mr. Offley may not only be saved the trouble of amending them, but deprived of the pleasure of refusing it.”

Hawxhurst stated that he had “no design to injure” Offley, but found it necessary to “remove the objections and difficulties, which [Offley] has thrown out, with more art, perhaps, than truth.” Both his reputation and his business were at stake, warranting a response that filled approximately two-thirds of a column. Most eighteenth-century advertisers promoted their own products without mentioning competitors, but occasionally some advanced their own businesses by disparaging others.

BONUS: Daniel Offley published a response of a similar length. In the August 7, 1766, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal, Offley’s advertisement appeared on the first page and Hawxhurst’s on the final page.

Aug 7 - 8:7:1766 Offley Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (August 7, 1766).