June 5

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

Jun 5 - 6:2:1768 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (June 2, 1768).

“JOHN BOYD, Druggist, Has just imported, and now sells, at BALTIMORE TOWN.”

John Boyd placed an advertisement for “A Neat and general assortment of Drugs, and Medicines” in the June 2, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal.  Unlike many others who advertised consumer goods and services in the Journal, Boyd did not operate a business in Philadelphia.  Instead, he sold his array of remedies “at BALTIMORE TOWN” in neighboring Maryland. Residents of Philadelphia were not the intended audience for Boyd’s advertisement, especially since several druggists and shopkeepers who stocked medicines among their general merchandise served that busy port city.  Some of them, including Nathaniel and John Tweedy and John Sparhawk, advertised in the same issue that carried Boyd’s notice.

Instead, Boyd sought the patronage of other residents of “BALTIMORE TOWN” as well as colonists who lived in the hinterlands between Baltimore and Philadelphia.  He depended on the wide distribution of the Pennsylvania Journal as a regional newspaper that served readers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and beyond. He expected that readers outside Philadelphia would at least skim the advertisements for local content in addition to reading news items that reported on events throughout the colonies, Europe, and the Atlantic world.  Yet he also realized that other advertisers, especially direct competitors who specialized in medicines, often provided mail order services. Accordingly, he assured potential customers that “The Prices will be the same, or as low as in Philadelphia.” Henry Stuber, a druggist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, made the same promise in his own advertisement that ran once again in the supplement that accompanied the June 2 edition.

Boyd in Baltimore and Stuber in Lancaster vied for local and regional clients by advertising in a newspaper published in Philadelphia, seizing the best option available to them in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Yet that would not be the case for much longer.  Throughout the years of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution the number of newspapers printed in the colonies and the new nation fluctuated yet expanded over time, a trend that only intensified in the final decade of the eighteenth century as printers in an increasing number of cities and towns published local newspapers.  After all, the fate of the republic, an experiment with an uncertain outcome, relied on educated and informed citizens.  Both before and after the Revolution, the revenues from advertisements contributed to the publication and dissemination of the news, even though conceptions of what counted as a local newspaper for the purposes of advertising changed over time.

June 2

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

Jun 2 - 6:2:1768 Pennsylvania Journal Supplement
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal (June 2, 1768).

“For a more particular description I refer to my printed catalogue.”

In the spring of 1768 William Semple advertised “A LARGE assortment of MERCHANDIZE” recently imported from Glasgow and Liverpool.  Although he enumerated a few of those items, such as “Silk gauzes of all kinds” and “Scotch threads,” he devoted most of the space in his advertisement to listing dozens of titles from among “a great collection of BOOKS.”  He concluded by inviting prospective customers to consult his “printed catalogue” for “a more particular description” of his inventory of books.

Semple did not rely on newspaper advertisements alone to promote the books he sold.  Like many other eighteenth-century printers and booksellers, he distributed a catalog intended to entice prospective customers by informing them of the various books, pamphlets, plays, and other printed items available.  A reading revolution took place in the eighteenth century:  habits shifted from intensive reading of the Bible and devotional materials to extensive reading from among many genres.  Book catalogs played a role in fueling that reading revolution by drawing attention to titles that consumers might not otherwise have considered purchasing.

In this case, Semple offered few details about his catalog other than noting that it was printed rather than a manuscript list.  Some booksellers advised that they sold their book catalogs for nominal fees, but Semple did not indicate that was the case.  He may have distributed his catalogs gratisin hopes that doing so would yield a higher return on his investment. His advertisement also does not reveal if his catalog was a broadside or a pamphlet.  He simply stated that a “printed catalogue” existed as a supplement to his newspaper advertisements.

In A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800, Robert B. Winans has compiled a list of 286 extant American book catalogs published before the nineteenth century. Booksellers’ catalogs and publishers’ catalogs accounted for just over half, with social library catalogs, auction catalogs, circulating library catalogs, and college library catalogs comprising the remainder.  In addition to the 286 book catalogs with at least one surviving copy, Winans includes entries for others identified from newspaper advertisements and other sources. He suspects, however, that “many if not most of them may be bibliographic ghosts.”  He also reports, “Many other newspaper advertisements could just as legitimately form the basis for additional entries.  But I have not included such entries since I have grave doubts about their validity.”[1]  He does not further explain his skepticism.

Winans includes an unnumbered entry for a “Catalogue of books in history, divinity, law, arts and sciences and the several parts of polite literature, to be sold by Garrat Noel, bookseller” advertised in the August 3, 1767, edition of the New-York Gazette, although no extant copy has been located.[2]  He does not include any entry for Semple’s catalog among those published the following year.  Winans’s annotated bibliography of extant book catalogs documents an impressive array of marketing materials distributed in eighteenth-century America.  Despite his skepticism about some that appeared in advertisements yet have not survived (which hardly comes as a surprise that such ephemeral items either no longer exist or have not yet been identified), these advertisements indicate that colonists had an expectation that booksellers and publishers did indeed print and distribute book catalogs as an alternate means of marketing their wares.


[1]Robert B. Winans, A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800 (Worcester:  American Antiquarian Society, 1981), xvi.

[2]Winans, Descriptive Checklist, 43

April 24

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

Apr 24 - 4:21:1768 Pennsylvania Journal Supplement
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal (April 21, 1768).

“NATHANIEL and JOHN TWEEDY, Druggists, near the Court-House, Philadelphia.”

Druggists Nathaniel Tweedy and John Tweedy advertised frequently in the late 1760s.  They advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  They advertised in the Pennsylvania Journal.  They advertised in the Pennsylvania Chronicle.  They spread their marketing efforts across multiple publications to increase the likelihood that colonists in Philadelphia and its hinterlands would encounter their notices.

The Tweedys also varied the content of their advertisements.  Some listed an extensive assortment of “DRUGGS and MEDICINES” as well as surgical instruments and other medical supplies.  Others focused exclusively on the Baume de Vie, a patent medicine.  The Tweedys proclaimed that they had been “appointed the sole vendors … in America by the patentee.”  To further convince potential customers of the efficacy of the Baume de Vie they sold “a narrative of the extraordinary effects of said medicine, and the book of observations” for one shilling and six pence.  For those who did not wish to make such an investment, the druggists also offered to “lend them to those who will be kind enough to return them after perusal.”  Even though the Baume de Vie was the primary focus of some of their advertisements, they still devoted nearly half of the content in those notices to marketing their shop more generally.  In both newspapers and pamphlets, the Tweedys used print to promote their wares.

Compared to most other advertisers, the Tweedys were particularly savvy when it came to one aspect of newspaper advertising.  Rather than running one advertisement at a time and eventually replacing it with an updated or new advertisement, they simultaneously published several advertisements at the same time.  On occasion they even inserted multiple advertisements into a single issue of a newspaper, perhaps believing that each would enhance the effectiveness of the others.  Vendue masters in Boston frequently adopted this strategy, but their turnover in merchandise at each auction explains their decision to do so.  The Tweedys, on the other hand, operated a shop with a fairly constant inventory. Given the length of many of their advertisements, they certainly could have combined listing their wares and promoting the Baume de Vie into one advertisement.  Yet they chose instead to saturate newspapers with greater numbers of advertisements, increasing the likelihood that readers who perused the notices would encounter and remember their shop and the goods and services they offered.  Readers of the April 24, 1768, edition of thePennsylvania Journal, for instance, would have seen the Tweedys’ advertisement for the Baume de Vie on the second page of the supplement as well as a lengthier advertisement listing their merchandise on the fourth page.  By the end of the eighteenth century inserting multiple advertisements into a single newspaper became common practice, but the Tweedys experimented with the technique decades earlier, demonstrating its potential to other advertisers.

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.