September 17

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

Sep 17 - 9:14:1769 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 17, 1769).

“As cheap … as he did before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”

According to an advertisement he inserted in the September 14, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal, Peter T. Curtenius sold a vast assortment of merchandise at his shop “At the Sign of the Golden Anvil.” He listed an array of textiles, accessories, and accouterments among “many other Articles in the Dry-Good Way,” but he also stocked housewares, hardware, and even a few books and grocery items. In many ways, his lengthy list of the wares he made available resembled other advertisements emphasizing consumer choice that had been running in American newspapers for the better part of two decades.

Yet Curtenius’s advertisement was also the product of a particular moment. It opened and closed with a nod to the politics of the period. In 1769 New Yorkers, like many other colonists, participated in a nonimportation agreement as an economic protest against the taxes levied on imported paper, tea, glass, and other items by the Townshend Acts. Before he even described his inventory to prospective customers, Curtenius pledged that he set prices “as cheap … as he did before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.” In other words, the shopkeeper did not take advantage of the situation to engage in price gouging. Curtenius suggested that as supply of imported goods dwindled that colonists could expect prices to rise, but he pledged to shield his customers from that aspect of the market. This may not have been solely an altruistic sacrifice on his part if he happened to have surplus goods in stock and welcomed an opportunity to rid himself of merchandise that had been taking too long to sell before the nonimportation agreement went into effect.

Curtenius concluded his advertisement with a list of “Goods made at the New-York Air Furnace,” including pots, kettles, and stoves of various sorts. As an alternative to importing goods from Britain, discontented colonists embraced “domestic manufactures,” goods produced in the colonies. Instead of consuming imported wares, they encouraged the conspicuous consumption of items made locally. The proprietors of the New-York Air Furnace frequently advertised their products, as did shopkeepers like Curtenius who intermixed politics and commerce. Curtenius assured prospective customers of the quality of the items produced at the New-York Air Furnace, asserting that the hammers in particular “have been found on Proof, to be superior to English Hammers.”

At a glance, the format of Curtenius’s advertisement did not look different from others that regularly appeared in the New-York Journal and other newspapers published throughout the colonies. On closer inspection, however, colonists discovered that Curtenius engaged with the politics of the imperial crisis as a means of marketing his merchandise. He promised that he did not inflate his prices while simultaneously offering consumers alternatives to some of the items they previously imported.

October 23

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

Oct 23 - 10:20:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (October 20, 1768).

Imported by him in the last Vessels from Europe.”

Peter T. Curtenius sold a variety of goods “At the Sign of the Golden Anvil” in New York in the fall of 1768. He advertised “a fresh Assortment” of textiles and hardware in the New-York Journal, advising that they had been “imported by him in the last Vessels from Europe.” The timing was important. The September 8 edition reported that the city’s merchants had met on August 27 to adopt a series of resolutions concerning imported goods. Until Parliament repealed duties on paper and glassware, the merchants vowed to cease trading with Great Britain … yet this nonimportation agreement had certain parameters. The merchants stated that they “will not send for … any other Goods than what we have already ordered.” This allowed for the arrival of merchandise that had been ordered prior to August 27 and the stockpiling of those goods. Merchants made a political statement while simultaneously stockpiling goods and minimizing the effects on their own finances.

Almost two months had passed when Curtenius’s advertisement appeared in the October 20 edition of the New-York Journal, but it had first been published three weeks earlier in the September 29 issue. Given the amount of time required for ships to transmit orders across the Atlantic and return with their cargoes, any items imported “in the last Vessels from Europe” at the end of September must have been ordered before merchants in New York adopted their nonimportation agreement.

Demonstrating that he had abided by those resolutions may have been particularly important for Curtenius. After listing his imported wares, he devoted a paragraph to goods “made at the New-York Air Furnace,” including “Pots, kettles, pie pans and baking ovens.” Even as he sold imported goods, Curtenius joined a movement that promoted production and consumption of “domestic manufactures” as a means of asserting greater economic independence from Great Britain. He would have undermined the political meaning of ironmongery produced in New York if he had marketed goods that departed from the provisions of the nonimportation agreement. To make those items even more attractive to prospective customers, Curtenius also underscored the quality of some of them. When it came to hammers made at the New-York Air Furnace, for instance, he asserted that they “have been found upon proof to be superior to the English hammers.” Customers did not have to sacrifice quality when choosing to buy products that made a political statement.

Elsewhere in the October 20 edition of the New-York Journal, “A CITIZEN’ lamented the landing of troops in Boston and other measures intended “to humble and molify our refactor, (or as they will be stiled) rebellious Spirits.” Colonists could hardly read advertisements for consumer goods and services without thinking of the political ramifications associated with their own habits and decisions concerning consumption. Even as Curtenius deployed formulaic language about the vessels that transported his goods, that language took on new meaning for readers in the wake of new developments in the realm of politics.