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.

 

January 12

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

jan-12-1121766-boston-evening-post
Boston Evening-Post (January 12, 1767).

“The above GOODS will be sold as low as if the Prices were affix’d to each Article.”

Eighteenth-century advertisers rarely indicated specific prices for their merchandise, though they frequently proclaimed that they charged “reasonable rates” or offered discounts for purchasing by volume. Shopkeeper Gilbert Deblois stated that he sold the “large Assortment” of goods he stocked “Very Cheap for ready Money.” He made this promise in what might be considered the header of his advertisement that appeared before an extensive list detailing his inventory. Advertisements placed by retailers commonly featured some sort of header that included the advertiser’s name and location, announced that their wares had been recently imported, and made general appeals to price, quality, and fashion.

Deblois augmented his standard assurance that customers could expect “Very Cheap” prices with a note that explained why he did not specify any particular prices. “The above goods,” he asserted, “will be sold as low as if the Prices were affix’d to each Article.” He further explained, just in case potential customers were not already aware or needed to be reminded, that “it’s well known the fixing Prices to Goods in an Advertisement does by no Means denote the cheapness of them, as they differ so much in Quality.” Consumers would not find it useful, the shopkeeper argued, to review the prices in an advertisement before visiting his shop. They needed to examine the merchandise to assess its quality for themselves in order to determine that any price was indeed “Very Cheap.”

This clarification may help to explain why so few advertisers announced specific low prices as a means of attracting potential customers, a significant difference between eighteenth-century methods and modern marketing practices that often rely on advertising particular prices. In an era before major manufacturers mass produced products that carried brand names associated with well known reputations, both retailers and, especially, consumers may have considered listing specific prices in advertisements meaningless, ineffective, and potentially misleading.

December 9

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

dec-9-1291766-south-carolina-gazette-and-country-journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (December 9, 1766).

“All Stable and Chair Accounts must be paid Quarterly.”

Eighteenth-century wholesalers sometimes advertised discounts for purchasing in volume, but rarely provided particulars rather than promises. In today’s advertisement, John Marley offered discount pricing for a service he provided, caring for horses at his “Stable Yard” in Charleston. Although his notice was addressed to “those Gentlemen who have Horses and Chairs at his Stable Yard” already, it communicated discounts to anyone who happened to read it, including current and prospective customers.

Marley gave customers three options, listing rates “For a Horse by the Quarter,” “For a Horse by the Month,” and “For a Horse by the Night.”(*) A single night cost 10 shillings, while a month cost 11 pounds and 5 shillings (or 225 shillings, which makes the calculations more intuitive to modern readers accustomed to the decimal system for currency). Since an entire month of single nights would have cost 15 pounds (or 300 shillings) when purchased individually, the customer who contracted by the month saved 25%, certainly a significant discount that also benefited Marley because it guaranteed consistent business.

Similarly, stabling a horse by the quarter cost 30 pounds (or 600 shillings) compared to 11 pounds and 5 shillings (or 225 shillings). Paying for each month separately would have amounted to 33 pounds and 15 shillings (or 675 shillings). The discount for stabling by the quarter rather than by the month was a more modest 11%, but a savings nonetheless. It was certainly a deal compared to paying by the night for an entire quarter. That would have amounted to a total of 45 pounds (or 900 shillings). In other words, “those Gentlemen who ha[d] Horses” stabled by John Marley saved 33% when they contracted for an entire quarter rather than by the night. Once again, customers benefited from the discounts while the hostler increased the likelihood of having horses in his stable over long periods.

These prices may seem deceptive to modern readers with less experience converting pounds, shillings, and pence, but eighteenth-century readers would have recognized the discounts much more readily. Marley did not need to state explicitly that he offered discounts for stabling horses over an extended period. Instead, he allowed the prices to speak for themselves.

(*) Keep in mind that there were 20 shillings in a pound. As was common in eighteenth-century bookkeeping, the list of prices or rates in this advertisement includes three columns: pounds, shillings, and pence. Marley used “round numbers” that did not include any pence, which streamlined the calculations. (There were 12 pence in a shilling and 240 pence in a pound.)