GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“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.