February 26

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

Feb 26 - 2:26:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (February 26, 1768).

I will Sell as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.”

Nathaniel Backus, Jr., listed several commodities and their prices in an advertisement he inserted in the February 26, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette. In addition, he offered “a good Assortment of European Goods, which I will Sell as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.” Backus listed his location as Norwich Landing. The New-London Gazette served a region that extended far beyond the port town for which it was named.

Note that Backus did not compare his prices to those in other cities and towns in New England. He confined his comparison to the local marketplace, seeking to assure potential customers that they could not do any better dealing with other local shopkeepers. Few, if any, of his wares – “BEST London Pewter,” “German Serge,” “Barbados Rum,” and “Bohea Tea,” to name just a few of the commodities he listed – had arrived directly at Norwich. Instead, they had likely been shipped first to Boston or New York. Even if they had been transported via a more direct route, this “good Assortment of European Goods” would have passed through the port of New London and its customs house before continuing up the Thames River to Norwich. These additional legs required in shipping the goods to the small town of Norwich likely made them slightly more expensive for retailers to obtain them, affecting the prices Backus and others charged their customers. Shopkeepers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, sometimes favorably compared their prices to those in Boston, New York, or all of New England. Retailers located inland, like Backus in Norwich, however, did not make such appeals at the same rate.

Backus guaranteed the prices he listed in his advertisement: “those that favour me with their Custom, may depend on being served through the Season, at the above Prices.” This allowed for consumers to do some comparison shopping even before visiting his shop. If potential customers considered the prices he listed for select items to be reasonable then they might have been more willing to accept Backus’s assertion that he sold his merchandise “as Cheap as any Man in Norwich.”

February 2

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

Feb 2 - 2:2:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (February 2, 1768).

“They engage to take back every Article from a Customer, that they can make the least reasonable Objection against.”

David Maull and John Wood, “TAYLORS, from LONDON,” incorporated a variety of marketing appeals into their advertisement in the February 2, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. They included some of the most popular marketing strategies deployed in the eighteenth century, but they also devised several innovative strategies that differentiated their commercial notice from others.

Purveyors of goods and services commonly promoted quality and fashion. Maull and Wood did so when they stated that their work represented “the neatest and newest fashion.” Artisans often underscored their competence. Maull and Wood reported that “they carry on the Taylors Business in all its Branches.” Shopkeepers and artisans both proclaimed their origins or other connections to London to give their goods and services more cachet in the transatlantic marketplace. Maull and Wood announced that they had migrated “from LONDON,” where they had presumably received training and previously worked. Invoking some sort of link to London also bolstered their claim to produce garments in the “newest fashion.” Many advertisers made a nod toward customer service, as Maull and Wood did when they pledged to fulfill orders “with quickest Dispatch.” Maull and Wood used stock language in making these common appeals to customers.

Yet the tailors also attempted to entice clients with a series of other marketing strategies in a nota bene that concluded their advertisement. They provided a money-back guarantee, promising “to take back every Article from a Customer, that they can make the least reasonable Objection against.” They also offered reduced rates to customers who paid in cash, vowing to “discount Five per Cent.” On the other hand, they extended “twelve Months Credit” to other customers during a period that most advertisers either demanded cash or allowed only “short credit.” Consumers regularly made purchases on credit in eighteenth-century America, but it was not a method of payment promoted by most purveyors of goods and services in their advertisements in the late 1760s. Maull and Wood made clear that they were willing to work out payment schedules that fit the needs of their prospective clients. John Ward, another tailor who advertised in the same issue, made no mention of how he expected customers to pay. Finally, Maull and Wood doubled the length of their advertisement by publishing a roster of prices to demonstrate their reasonable prices to prospective clients. This eliminated negotiating over the bill and anxieties that a better deal might have been possible by locking in rates from the start.

Maull and Wood distinguished their advertisement from others published in Charleston’s newspapers by augmenting the most common appeals with innovative marketing strategies. They did not invent any of the methods they used, but they effectively amalgamated multiple popular and novel tactics for attracting customers into a single advertisement to an extent not achieved by most other advertisers of consumer goods and services in the 1760s.

January 1

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

Jan 1 - 1:1:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (January 1, 1768).

“Such as an Assortment of Goods, as will be most agreable to the People in general here.”

In 1768 Jonathan Moulton began the new year by announcing that he would soon make available “a new and Fresh Assortment of ENGLISH & WEST INDIA GOODS” for customers who visited his shop in Hampton, New Hampshire. Most eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers placed advertisements to promote merchandise they had commenced selling, but Moulton did not wait. Instead, he previewed his new inventory, pledging that consumers would be able to make purchases within ten days time. He incited anticipation as a means of cultivating demand in advance.

To whet consumers’ appetites, he also underscored his low prices. Moulton proclaimed that he would “sell as cheap as can be bought at any Shop in this Province, without Exception” or even in nearby Newbury, Massachusetts. To demonstrate the veracity of that claim, Moulton published prices for several popular items, including rum, molasses, sugar, and wool.

As a further means of convincing potential customers to purchase his wares, he cleverly introduced a resolution for them to achieve in the new year: supporting the local economy rather than doing business with merchants and shopkeepers in other colonies. He lamented that “for several Years past, a great part of our CASH has been carried into the other Province.” He attributed this to lower prices available at shops in Massachusetts, but Moulton’s low prices made it attractive for local customers to resolve to keep “the Money in the Province.” Furthermore, that achieved other practical advantages for his customers: purchasing from a local supplier “prevent[ed] the travelling of several Miles, and Cost of Ferriage” in addition to benefiting the local economy.

As colonists in New Hampshire acknowledged the passing of one year and the commencement of another, Moulton challenged them to think about the opportunities they would encounter as consumers in 1768 and how to respond responsibly. He previewed “such an Assortment of Goods, as will be most agreable to the People in general here.” Rather than focus solely on price and selection, he explained why purchasing from him benefited both customers and the general welfare of their local community and colony.

December 8

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

Dec 8 - 12:8:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (December 8, 1767).

“Twenty per Cent cheaper than goods usually imported.”

In a notice that appeared in the advertising supplement that accompanied the December 8, 1767, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, William Gowdey relied on appeals to price to move the merchandise he had recently imported and stocked at his shop in Broad Street in Charleston. Before listing his wares he informed potential customers that they would enjoy special bargains when they visited his shop: he set prices “twenty per Cent cheaper” than his competitors usually charged. To demonstrate that was indeed the case, rather than a false promise designed to get customers through the door, Gowdey indicated the prices of several kinds of textiles. Readers could determine for themselves that the shopkeeper offered good deals on “mens worsted hose at 10s. 20s. and 30s. a pair” or “Osnabrughs at 4s. a yard.”

Even when they made appeals to price, most shopkeepers did not list prices in their newspaper advertisements during the colonial era. For instance, in the same issue William Glen and Son advertised many of the same textiles, but made only a general statement that they “will dispose of [their inventory] at a low advance.” Similarly, Thomas Radcliffe, Jr., promoted “very reasonable terms” but did not specify any prices. As a result, readers could not compare prices from one advertisement with those in another. Gowdey’s strategy depended on consumers already possessing some sense of the typical prices for popular goods and then recognizing good deals when they saw them. His assertion that his prices were “twenty per Cent cheaper” primed potential customers to imagine bargains, prompting them to become active participants in his marketing strategy when they saw the prices and confirmed for themselves that he did indeed sell at discounted rates. Such methods incited demand in the colonial era, just as they do today, when consumers who previously did not realize that they needed “mens worsted hose” or other goods in Gowdey’s advertisement decided that they could not pass up bargains once introduced to them.

September 8

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

Sep 8 - 9:8:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 8, 1767).

“Checks by the piece so low as 4s. 6d.”

Robert and Nathaniel Stott advertised a “General assortment” of textiles they imported from Liverpool to Charleston. They informed readers of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal that they carried “checks, striped hollands, handkerchiefs; India dimothies, figured and plain; counterpanes, black velvets, velverets and jenets” that they “bought from the manufacturers.” Revealing their supply chain allowed the Stotts to more convincingly make an appeal to price. For readers who approached their advertisement with healthy skepticism, the Stotts explained that they could indeed sell imported fabrics for “much lower than the usual advance” because they did not procure their merchandise through fellow merchants on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, they eliminated the middlemen, reducing prices for their customers in the process.

To demonstrate the veracity of their claim, the Stotts quoted a specific price for checks: “by the piece so low as 4s. 6d. per yard.” Consumers already familiar with the going rate for checks could assess for themselves what kind of bargain the Stotts offered, but those were not the only prospective customers who benefitted. The Stotts made it easier for all readers to compare prices when visiting local competitors, a process that might cause shoppers to visit the Stotts to purchase other items as well. After all, they sold “other widths in proportion” to the low prices for checks and other fabrics “upon very reasonable terms.”

Most eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers did not indicate specific prices in their advertisements, though significant numbers made general statements about their “low rates” or deployed other formulaic language. On its own, the Stotts’ invocation of “very reasonable terms” fit that trend, but committing to a specific price – four shillings and six pence per yard – distinguished their advertisement from others by making a concrete promise to consumers. The Stotts replaced vague reassurances with tangible evidence in their efforts to increase sales at their store in Beadon’s Alley.

July 9

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

Jul 9 - 7:9:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (July 9, 1767).

“He finds it necessary to reduce the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.”

Upholsterer John Mason placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette when he significantly reduced the prices he charged for various services. His method for delivering this information, however, could have used a little refinement. Rather than focus on the deals that benefited prospective customers, Mason offered two other explanations for lowering his fees: “the Stagnation of Business and Scarcity of Cash.” While both of these factors prompted Mason to adjust his prices, neither of them placed customers at the center of Mason’s business model. Overcoming the “Stagnation of Business” was self-serving, hardly a fault for a tradesman trying to make a living but perhaps not the most artful way to frame his motivation fueling the business relationships he hoped to cultivate. He seemed to be saying that current conditions forced him to lower his fees rather than more graciously formulating this as a benefit intended specifically to advantage customers. Acknowledging the “Scarcity of Cash” made a nod toward the concerns of prospective clients. Many may have found themselves in a situation of not being able to afford to hire Mason at the former rates because they did not have access to sufficient cash. The reduced fees made the upholsterer’s services more obtainable.

Still, Mason underplayed the most important appeal in his advertisement. He noted that he had “reduce[d] the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.” In other words, he knocked a tremendous 33% off his prices! Mason set about demonstrating this with a list of the fees he now charged for various services. He even encouraged prospective clients to compare “the above Prices with the Upholsterers Bills” (perhaps handbills distributed or posted by competitors), but this called for readers to expend additional effort to confirm a claim that he made only once rather than asserting it repeatedly and with greater force. Mason made his case, presenting a list of fees as evidence to support it, but the overarching message seems to have been overshadowed by the details. Mason may not have presented too much information, but that does not mean that he optimized the marketing potential associated with significant price reductions.

This critique may not be completely fair to an advertiser who operated within the conventions of eighteenth-century marketing practices. After all, his notice displayed a fair amount of innovation that distinguished it from others. However, it lacked other elements designed to attract attention and generate excitement. Mason opted for practical numbers instead of insistent proclamations about price reductions. He opted for substance over style, which may have better served potential customers in the end. Yet that decision demonstrates the chasm between advertising innovations in the eighteenth century and innovations that became standard practices in later centuries.

April 3

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

Apr 3 - 4:3:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 3, 1767).

“West India RUM by the Hogshead or Barrel, … Good Molasses.”

I chose this advertisement because I recognized an important product, “West India Rum.” The economy of the British North American colonies greatly depended on a transatlantic system of export and import. This included several items from around the globe, like fabrics, tea, and rum.

Rum was especially integral to the colonies’ economy, in part because alcohol was favored for consumption. One estimate claims that for every adult male approximately 20 gallons of rum were consumed per year.[1] The high rate of consumption led to demand for more rum. One way to have a surplus was to distill molasses and create more rum. This created a booming industry in the colonies. According to John J. McCusker, “The distilling of rum from molasses created a substantial colonial industry, employing local capital, management skills, and labor. Steadily in demand, rum and molasses represented for the colonial economy almost a currency.”[2] Not only was rum a commodity traded around the world, distilling it was also an opportunity to establish businesses within the colonies and contribute to the local economy.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Unlike modern advertisements that often prominently feature prices as a means of enticing potential customers (and manipulating their perceptions, such as $99.99 rather than $100), eighteenth-century advertisements rarely listed prices for the goods they marketed. Some merchants and shopkeepers deviated from that rule, especially those who sold some of the most popular commodities that retailers and end-use consumers tended to purchase in volume.

For instance, in the same issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette as today’s advertisement placed by Noah Parker, three of his competitors did include prices for some, but not all, of the commodities they listed. Henry Appleton noted prices for “Loaf Sugar” and “BEST London BOHEA TEA, by the Hundred, Dozen, or single Pound,” but did not reveal how much he charged for chocolate, rice, or “All sorts of West India Goods.” Edward Sherburne also the “Best of BOHEA TEA,” barely undercutting Appleton’s price: £4 15s Old Tenor per pound instead of £4 16s OT per pound. Like Parker, George Turner provided prices for only some of his goods (rum, sugar, coffee, and “COTTON-WOOL”).

Richard Champney perhaps came closest to modern marketing methods with his version of “limited time only” prices for coffee, which he sold at “22s. Old Tenor per pound.” However, he did not “promise to sell at that Price long, as the late remarkable Frost in the West Indies, may have the same effect on Coffee, as on Limes; therefore probably that Article may be scarce and dear.” Champney used temporarily low prices and the specter of scarcity to drive customers to his shop.

That four advertisers listed prices in a single issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette was remarkable and extraordinary. It was not uncommon for entire issues to be devoid of specific pricing in advertisements. Most merchants and shopkeepers adopted the approach taken by Noah Parker, relying on the goods themselves to attract customers but not specifying prices in the advertisements. Many made general appeals to price, promising “low costs” or “reasonable rates.” Parker did not go even that far. Instead he invited “those who desire to know the Price to call and see the Articles.” In so doing he echoed an argument sometimes made by other advertisers: specifying a particular price was meaningless in the absence of examining the quality of the merchandise.

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[1] John J. McCusker, “The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775,” Journal of Economic History 30, no. 1 (March 1970): 247.

[2] McCusker, “Rum Trade,” 247.