April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec

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

Providence Gazette (April 22, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

The word “Pot-Ash” caught my attention as I was looking at this advertisement, since I had never heard of it. After doing some research, I learned from a journal article by Henry Paynter that potash is a type of potassium carbonate that was made from the ashes of trees and plants during the eighteenth century. Home potash production was encouraged during the American Revolution, since it could be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder. For more day-to-day life, it was used to make goods such as soap and glass, to dye fabrics, and for baking. Potash soap was very popular in England during the middle of the eighteenth century. Similar to South Carolina indigo compared to indigo from French and Spanish colonies, Great Britain imported potash produced in the American colonies rather than Russia because of its cheaper price, sacrificing quality to save money. As the colonial potash industry matured, production shifted north in order to utilize trees more favorable for making potash. Unfortunately, this process led to mass amounts of forests being cleared by the late eighteenth century, and Americans had to find other ways to produce the money-making potash.

**********

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Like many other colonial newspapers, the masthead of the Providence Gazette proclaimed that it “Contain[ed] the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” Although the printer, John Carter, and many readers may have considered news items the most significant of those “Advices,” advertisements also kept colonists informed of events and commerce by providing details not necessarily available elsewhere in the newspaper. On occasion, Carter did not have sufficient space to publish all of the “Advices,” whether classified as news or paid notices. The April 22, 1769, edition included a brief note to that effect: “Sundry Articles of Intelligence composed for the Day’s Paper, and a few Advertisements, omitted for Want of Room, shall be in our next.”

Even though some advertisements did not make it into the April 22 issue, Joseph Russell and William Russell were well represented in its pages. News comprised the first two pages, a portion of the third, and most of the fourth. Overall, advertising accounted for slightly less than an entire page. Yet the Russells managed to have two advertisements included among the contents, the notice concerning potash on the final page and another promoting “Barrel Pork,” pepper, indigo, and other commodities on the third page. Both would have been familiar to regular readers of the Providence Gazette, having appeared the previous week and in earlier issues. As a result, these “Advices” may have seemed less pressing than the information in other advertisements or the “Sundry Articles of Intelligence” already composed but omitted until the following week.

Carter may have granted preferential treatment to the Russells precisely because they were such prolific advertisers. They advertised often, sometimes placing multiple advertisements in a single issue. They also tended to insert lengthy advertisements, especially when they listed dozens or hundreds of items they imported and sold at their shop. Carter relied on revenues from advertising to make the Providence Gazette a viable enterprise. In the colophon, every week he called on readers to submit both subscriptions and advertisements to the printing office. Given that the Russells did so regularly advertise in the pages of his newspaper, Carter may have prioritized their advertisements over others when running low on space, even though the “Advices” provided by the Russells had already become familiar in Providence and beyond over the course of several weeks.

April 16

GUEST CURATOR: Matt Ringstaff

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

Providence Gazette (April 15, 1769).

“Wanted, a Quantity of good Pot-Ash.”

Before seeing the word “Pot-Ash” in Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement from 1769 in the Providence Gazette I had no idea what is was or what it was used for. I understood from the advertisement was that there was a large market for it. Potash, “a crude form of potassium carbonate,” came from the ashes of burned trees. Colonists originally used it for making soap and, later, gunpowder. According to William E. Burns, colonists used small amounts of potash for baking to help cakes rise. Colonists made potash “by burning logs and other wood to ashes, then placing the ashes in a barrel lined with twigs and straw.” After that step, “[p]otash makers poured water on top of the ashes, dissolving out the salts.” Then they boiled what was left to create potassium carbonate that “made up less than a quarter of the mass.” Potash had many uses in colonial times, “from household soapmaking to glass manufacture.”[1]

**********

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Sometimes when guest curators examine the featured advertisements I instead choose to comment more extensively on methodology, pedagogy, or the benefits and challenges of working with digitized primary sources. For this entry, I offer a few comments on Assumption College’s twenty-fifth annual Undergraduate Symposium.

Today all of the guest curators that have worked on the project this spring will make presentations about their contributions at the Symposium, sharing their work beyond the classroom in yet another forum. Designed to replicate a conference, the Symposium draws together talented undergraduate students from across the many departments on campus. Students may make oral presentations or participate in poster sessions, whichever best fits their projects and matches the practices in their disciplines.

The guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project, all of them History majors enrolled in my upper-level Revolutionary America class, will make presentations that they have previously delivered in class in preparation for the Symposium. I oversaw a workshop for each presentation. The entire class discussed what worked well and offered constructive suggestions for improvement so each guest curator could make the necessary revisions and deliver a polished presentation at the Symposium.

The ten presentations related to the Adverts 250 Project have been divided into two sessions of five presentations each. A faculty moderator from the Symposium Committee will oversee each session. I will make a formal introduction for each young scholar. Then each will make a ten-minute presentation, followed by five minutes for questions and discussion. Later in the day everyone involved in the Symposium will gather at a reception hosted by the Provost and the Symposium Committee to celebrate their accomplishments.

Preparing for and participating in the Symposium requires a lot of time. In my Revolutionary America class, we have given over three of twenty-seven class meetings to this endeavor. This means that we cover less content in the course of the semester, but I know from experience that students ultimately learn the content we do cover much better because it has been linked to other skills they have developed and honed as part of the Adverts 250 Project. From History Labs in class to the Symposium near the end of the semester, the guest curators have enhanced their information literacy, expanded their research skills, refined their writing abilities, and gained valuable experience with public speaking. All of these will serve them well in their future studies and, more significantly, beyond the classroom.

Good luck at the Symposium today, guest curators!

**********

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

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.

**********

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.

**********

[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.

March 23

GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse

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

Mar 23 - 3:23:1767 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (March 23, 1767).

“THE METHOD and plain PROCESS FOR MAKING POT-ASH.”

Before reading this advertisement, I had not even heard of potash. After a bit of research I found an article by William Roberts III, “American Potash Manufactured Before the American Revolution.” I discovered that potash, “the principal industrial chemical of the eighteenth century,” came from wood ashes and had many different uses, from bleaching cloth to making soaps to creating dyes.[1] Nonetheless, this industry did not become widespread in the colonies until a decade before the Revolution.

One reason that the potash industry grew in the colonies was because of the great amount of trees in North America while in England there was an “early depletion of English woodlands [that] had discouraged growth of the industry.”[2] Thomas Stephens had an part in the development of the potash industry in the colonies. Around the middle of the eighteenth centruy, he claimed “to have developed a method of making potash profitably in North America” to the Board of Trade.[3]

**********

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Today’s advertisement did not attempt to sell potash itself but rather Thomas Stephens’s pamphlet detailing how to produce the commodity, The Method and Plain Process for Making Pot-Ash Equal, If Not Superior to the Best Foreign Pot-Ash. As Ceara indicates, potash production and export did not become a viable enterprise in the colonies until just before the Revolution. Until that time, Britain depended primarily on Germany and the Baltic for potash. Given the competition, it makes sense that Stephens sought to assure readers and potential potash entrepreneurs that, with the guidance offered in his book, they stood to produce a profitable commodity.

Parliament was indeed interested in cultivating an American potash industry. In response to Stephens’s claim that he had developed a method that would significantly expand potash production in the colonies, Parliament promised “the sum of £3000 whenever he had done enough promoting and publicizing to satisfy the Board of Trade and the Treasury Lords.”[4] That promoting and publicizing resulted in his pamphlet, advertisements to promote the pamphlet, and perhaps even “PROOF BOTTLES belonging to this Treatise” that contained samples to verify the quality of potash made using his “METHOD and plain PROCESS.” Selling the pamphlet may have generated some revenues for printer William Weyman, but Stephens stood to benefit from a much more significant windfall once enough copies had been distributed.

According to Carl Bridenbaugh, Stephens made a tour of several southern colonies to promote his pamphlet in 1757, beginning in Charleston and visiting more than half a dozen cities and towns in the Carolinas and Virginia.[5] Stephens returned to England that same year, but a decade after his departure his pamphlet was still advertised in American newspapers. In the early 1760s, James Stewart, dispatched from London by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, toured New England and New York. Bridenbaugh credits Stewart with being such a successful advocate that “potash became a staple commodity of New York and New England.”[6] For readers of the New-York Gazette interested in entering or improving potash production, Stephens’s pamphlet may have supplemented Stewart’s instruction.

**********

[1] William I. Roberts, III, “American Potash Manufacture before the American Revolution,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 116, no. 5 (October 1972), 383.

[2] Roberts, 383.

[3] Roberts, 383.

[4] Roberts, 384.

[5] Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 104.

[6] Bridenbaugh, Colonial Craftsman, 105.

August 12

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

Aug 12 - 8:11:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (August 11, 1766).

“DIRECTIONS for making calcined or PEARL ASHES.”

Advertisements associated with the potash industry appeared quite regularly in colonial newspapers. Some advertisers wanted to buy it, offering a good price in exchange for potash. Others supplied some of the equipment, such as oversized kettles, necessary for producing potash. Although not necessarily directly involved in potash production, printers also published advertisements that indicated they stood to profit from it all the same. Some sold “Justices Blank Certificates” used in the packing and regulation of potash, while others peddled instruction manuals to those who wanted to participate in the industry or improve on their previous efforts.

Such was the case with a short pamphlet (less than twenty pages) devoted to “DIRECTIONS for making calcined or PEARL ASHES, As practised in Hungary, &c.” Samuel Hall, the printer of the Newport Mercury, sold the pamphlet at his shop “on the North Side of the Parade,” but the imprint on the pamphlet itself indicated that it was “Printed for and sold by JOHN MEIN, at the London Book-store” in Boston. Both printers (and quite likely others throughout New England that exchanged stock with Mein) looked to make a profit from indirect involvement in the potash trade through the sale of ancillary products.

Aug 12 - Potash Pamphlet
Directions for Making Calcined or Pearl Ashes, as Practised in Hungary, &c. with a Copper-plate Drawing of a Calcining Furnace (Boston:  John Mein, 1766).  Boston Public Library.

Both the advertisement and the title page of the pamphlet underscored that it included “a Copper-Plate Drawing of a calcined Furnace.” This would have certainly increased the expense of producing the pamphlet and, ultimately, the cost to the customer, but such an investment could be readily justified. The accompanying image likely offered valuable insight into the text, making it more comprehensible. Art historian Nancy Siegel has argued that engraved images that accompanied eighteenth-century cookbooks were imperative in demonstrating the meaning of the text to readers. The same would have been true for an instruction manual detailing equipment and processes for producing potash, especially for readers not already well versed in the subject. After all, the directions in the pamphlet were “founded on the most extensive Knowledge of Pearl Ashes—a Knowledge acquired by long Practice, Experience and Success. The advertisement warned readers that this was “the only Means to establish Matters of Fact.” It concluded by jeering that “plausible Theories” were “little better than ingenious Amusements.”

In other words, both the text and the engraved copperplate drawing merited attention from anybody serious about potash production. Both were worth the expense.

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.

April 17

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

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

Apr 17 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766).

“Cash and a good Price given for POT-ASH.”

When I first came across this advertisement there were several things that intrigued me. The first thing that caught my eye was “POT-ASH.” Potash is the common term for the nutrient form of the element potassium, which today is commonly used as a fertilizer. However, according to William I. Roberts III, in colonial America potash was essential for the production of “crown or flint glass, soft soap, various drugs and dyes, and saltpetre.” The opening line of the advertisement also caught my interest because he is offering to buy potash not selling it. The rest of the advertisement then goes on to offer a multitude of goods from window glass to flour and iron. This interested me because one of the first items for sale in Dennie’s shop is indigo. During the colonial period indigo was a major export from the colonies to England. Dennie’s advertisement exemplifies the growing demand for potash and other products from the colonies throughout the late eighteenth century.

**********

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Why did William Dennie want potash? Did he plan to use it himself in a business he operated? Or was he seeking to resell it and make a profit?

Trevor provided a link to an article that describes potash as “the principal industrial chemical of the eighteenth century” and indicates that it “was practically the only alkali used in the textile industries for bleaching linens, scouring woolens, and printing calicoes.” Printing patterns on textiles was not a common industry in early America (though some manufacturers did experiment sporadically by the end of the eighteenth century), but fullers – like the silk-dyer and scowerer from an advertisement featured last week – certainly bleached linens and scoured woolens. Perhaps Dennie intended to sell potash – along with “choice Indigo” to colonial fullers. As Trevor points out, his advertisement did include a variety of materials produced in the colonies (“Kippin’s Snuff” and “Philadelphia Flour,” for instance) that were transported from one region to another to be sold.

Perhaps Dennie had other plans. Maybe he issued a call for potash so he could export it to England. Again, from the linked article about American potash manufacture before the American Revolution, “[s]ince potash was obtained from wood ashes, the American colonies would appear to have been an obvious source of a product that was becoming increasingly vital to Great Britain as her industries grew and diversified.” Until a decade before the Revolution – about the time this advertisement was published – England depended on Germany and the Baltic to supply its potash. Dennie may have been on the cusp of this transition, helping to usher in the colonies as an increasingly important supplier of potash to England.

The advertisement does not make clear exactly why William Dennie issued a call for potash, but that he offered “Cash and a good Price” does indicate that demand existed for this product. Most colonial advertisements for goods and services attempted to incite demand. This one demonstrates existing demand for a particular product.