GUEST CURATOR: Elizabeth Peterson
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Smith and Atkinson advertised “POTASH KETTLES” and “EUROPEAN and INDIA GOODS” in the Boston Gazetteon December 2, 1771. The combination of potash kettles and imported goods in their advertisement give insight about life during this time. Potash, a chemical compound made from burning trees, was an important commodity produced in colonial America. As William I. Roberts III explains, “Potash, or pot-ashes, as contemporaries called it, was the principal industrial chemical of the eighteenth century, being essential in the production of crown or flint glass, soft soap, various drugs and dyes, and saltpetre.” As Roberts suggests, potash was a very important chemical during this era, one used in many different everyday items. Colonists produced and exported this commodity. Potash helped colonists make money. In turn, producing potash helped them participate in the consumer revolution. Colonists used the money they earned from selling a material used to make other goods, like glass and soap, to purchase the imported goods that Smith and Atkinson advertised.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
When selecting an advertisement about potash kettles, Lizzie had several options. She ultimately chose the advertisement that best illuminated themes from readings and discussions about commerce and consumption in early America in our Research Methods class at Assumption University in Spring 2021. Smith and Atkinson’s advertisement does indeed demonstrate both production and consumption in eighteenth-century America, distinguishing it from other advertisements about potash kettles that ran in the same issue of the Boston-Gazette.
Note that Smith and Atkinson’s advertisement was nestled between and advertisement for “Pot-Ash Kettles” placed by Benjamin Andrews, Jr., and another for “POT-ASH KETTLES” by Joseph Webb. Those three notices accounted for most of the middle column on the front page of the December 2, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, prominently placed where readers would likely notice them. Each advertisement encouraged American industry, noting that the kettles had been cast at forges in several towns in New England. In turn, buyers would use the kettles to produce potash to export. As Lizzie notes, they could use the proceeds to participate in the consumer revolution, purchasing the “EUROPEAN and INDIA GOODS” that Smith and Atkinson so prominently promoted in their advertisement. Andrews also mentioned “a small assortment of English Goods” on hand at his shop, but Smith and Atkinson’s advertisement most visibly establishes the relationship between production and consumption in early America.
Colonists encountered the same advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on the same day it ran in the Boston-Gazette. All three newspapers ran other advertisements by merchants and shopkeepers who listed an array of merchandise – textiles, housewares, hardware – that they imported and sold. Colonists who acquired their potash kettles from Smith and Atkinson had many other options beyond the “large and general assortment of EUROPEAN and INDIA GOODS” stocked by Smith and Atkinson. The widespread encouragement to consume imported goods that appeared in advertisements in all three newspapers buttressed Smith and Atkinson’s notice that balanced production and consumption.
 William I. Roberts III, “American Potash Manufacture before the American Revolution,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 116, no. 5 (October 1972): 383.