March 17

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

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

Connecticut Journal (March 17, 1769).

“Several Setts of POT-ASH KITTLES and COOLERS.”

When I looked at this advertisement I had no idea what “Pot-Ash” was or its uses. According to William E. Burns in Science and Technology in Colonial America, “Wood burned to ashes was the raw material for the creation of the most important alkali of the early modern chemical world, a crude form of potassium carbonate called potash.” Burns further explains that “potash making in America began as a profitable sideline to the necessary work of clearing trees from land for farming.” What were its uses? It was part of household soapmaking and glass manufacture. Burns says that “[s]mall amounts were even used in baking to help cakes rise.” How was potash made? It “was made was made by burning logs and other wood to ashes, then placing the ashes in a barrel lined with twigs and straw. … Potash makers poured water on top of the ashes, dissolving out the salts.” This resulted in lye that could be used to make soap. For other uses, the water containing potash lye “was then evaporated in an iron kettle and the remaining substance, ‘brown salt’ was heated in a smaller kettle until most of the original organic matter was gone.”[1] These were the “POT-ASH KITTLES” advertised by R. Walker of Stratford, Connecticut. Colonists made money by selling the potash.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As Zach indicates, many colonists participated in potash production by the late 1760s. In this notice from the Connecticut Journal, R. Walker advertised some of the equipment necessary for making potash. How significant was potash to the colonial American economy? Thomas L. Purvis states that the industry did not take off until the 1750s, even though the colonies had plenty of wood that could have been used to produce potash. In 1751, “Parliament exempted American potash from British import duties,” leading to the “large scale production of potash” in the colonies. While colonists used some of this potash in their own homes, they also exported it in significant quantities in the 1760s and 1770s.

Purvis reports that Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Boston, Lancaster, and Marlborough, all in Massachusetts, briefly became centers of potash production. Partnerships arose at each location as entrepreneurs invested in the equipment necessary to make potash. In the first dozen years, however, they experienced narrow profit margins and most went out of business. However, prospects improved after 1763. By 1775, Purvis calculates, “Britain was receiving 66% of its imported potash from North America, including some brought from Nova Scotia.”[2]

Some readers of the Connecticut Journal may have been interested in acquiring Walker’s “POT-ASH KITTLES and COOLERS” in order to participate in the industry, but their ultimate goal likely was not merely supplying resources to Britain. Instead, by participating in the production of potash they stood to increase their income and, in turn, gain greater access to the expanding world of consumption. Many advertisements in colonial newspapers promoted assortments of imported textiles, housewares, and other goods. Those advertisements called on colonists to be consumers, but others offered them means of producing the resources that would enable to them to become even more enmeshed in the transatlantic consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.

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[1] William E. Burns, Science and Technology in Colonial America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 25.

[2] Thomas L. Purvis, Colonial America, to 1763 (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 90.

September 21

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

sep-21-9201766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (September 20, 1766).

“All Kinds of Hollow and other cast Iron Ware.”

Potash production was a widespread enterprise in the colonial period. Advertisements seeking potash or selling a variety of supplies associated with producing potash (including potash kettles, forms certifying the contents of casks containing potash, and manuals for making potash) frequently appeared in colonial newspapers. Today’s advertisement also offered “Pot-Ash Kettles” for sale, directly from the new blast furnace in Scituate, Massachusetts. The weight and bulk of such items made them particularly expensive to import from England.

In addition to potash kettles, the proprietors also sold “all Kinds of Hollow and other cast Iron Ware.” The volume of production of cookware, tools, nails, and other products at local iron works was not sufficient to meet colonists’ needs. Similar items appeared regularly in the lists of goods imported from England in many advertisements during the late colonial period. Still, the blast furnace at Scituate and other iron works competed with an expanding volume of imported items; locally produced goods could be “supplied on the lowest Terms” because they did not need to be transported across the Atlantic. As the colonies increasingly objected to new imperial regulations, such locally manufactured goods became even more attractive. Many Americans wished to encourage such enterprises, realizing that the colonies were not self-sufficient in this regard but instead depended on British imports. Patronizing the blast furnace in Scituate thus took on political tones in addition to fulfilling commercial and economic needs.

To learn more about iron production in the colonial period, visit the blast furnace at Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, located northeast of Boston.

May 19

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

May 19 - 5:19:1766 Connecticut Courant
Connecticut Courant (May 19, 1766).

“Sundry Sett of the largest and best Size of POTT ASH Kittles and Coolers.”

By 1760, “potash was an important farm and home industry. … It was worth silver in the foreign markets, where the textile industry desired tons and tons of it to make the scouring and bleaching agents they needed. … There were entrepreneurial storekeepers accepting ashes in payment for their goods, and operating an ashery in conjunction with their stores,” according to Ralmon Jon Black, author of Colonial Asheries: Potash, an Eighteenth-Century Industry.

Black contends that nearly every family that settled the New England frontier in the second half of the eighteenth century participated in the potash industry to some extent, “even if only to save the ashes from the fireplace to pay their taxes.” He depicts an economy in which bartering was a standard practice and potash sometimes substituted for currency.

This advertisement helps to illustrate those circumstances. John-Pantry Jones, Oliver Pomroy, and Benjamin Henshaw sold sets of potash kettles (thick-walled iron pots used in the small-scale manufacture of potash) and coolers. They accepted cash or bartered for “Pot-Ash, or Country Produce.” Henshaw also sold a variety of imported goods. He may or may not have operated an ashery of his own as part of his commercial venture, but he certainly incorporated potash production into his business enterprise.