February 11

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

Providence Gazette (February 11, 1769).

“Great Inconveniences having arisen to the Public, by returning Letters for the Postage.”

The February 11, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette carried a notice from the General Post Office in New York dated January 20. It announced that “the Mail for Falmouth will be made up at this Office on Saturday the 4th of February next.” Although that date had already passed, the notice remained relevant to readers in Providence and throughout the colonies as it further explained that mail intended for the other side of the Atlantic “will continue to be made up in the same Manner upon the first Saturday in every Month, and the Packet Boat ordered to sail with it the next day.” At the command of the Deputy Postmaster General, James Parker communicated other instructions and advice to those who sent letters “to any Part of His Majesty’s Dominions, either in Europe or America” and beyond.

Was this piece an advertisement or a news item? Did John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette receive payment for inserting it in his newspaper? Or did he run it as a public service to his subscribers and other readers? The placement of the notice within the newspaper makes it difficult to determine if Carter classified it as news or advertising. It ran in the final column on the third page, after news items from Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, Boston, and Providence yet before the prices current from New York. Lines that extended across the column separated the notice from the items above and below, whereas a shorter line that extended across only a portion of the column separated the various news items from other cities and towns. Paid notices comprised almost the entire fourth page, except for the first item, an “Extract [about sows that] may be acceptable to many of our Country Readers.” While the notice from the General Post Office might have appeared in the place of the extract, the latter was many lines longer. The compositor may have made choices about where to place the two items within the newspaper based on their relative lengths. Although advertisements generally appeared after other content in the Providence Gazette, the compositor did sometimes take such liberties for practical purposes.

Whether or not Carter received payment for running the notice concerning the General Post Office, the item served as both news and advertising. Its placement made it a bridge between items that were definitely news and other items that were definitely paid notices. Its contents underscore that advertisements often delivered valuable information to colonial readers. For instance, the Providence Engine Company placed the final notice in the February 11 issue. In it, the Company informed residents of the city to prepare their fire buckets for inspection or else they could “depend on being prosecuted as the Law directs.” Like the notice from the General Post Office, that one blurred the distinction between news and advertising.

February 4

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

Providence Gazette (February 4, 1769).

“They CAN, DO, and WILL, sell as cheap for Cash as any Merchant or Shop-keeper in New-England.”

In their advertisement in the February 4, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, Ebenezer Thompson and Company deployed two of the most popular advertising appeals of the eighteenth century. They promoted price and consumer choice.

The partners informed prospective customers, especially their “COUNTRY FRIENDS” who might not spend enough time in Providence to go from store to store comparison shopping, that “their Goods are always laid in on the very best Terms.” That prompted Thompson and Company to make an extraordinary claim: “they CAN, DO, and WILL, sell as cheap for Cash as any Merchant or Shop-keeper in New-England.” If that was indeed the case, then there was no need to do any comparison shopping! Advertisers usually wrote the copy but left it to compositors to determine the format of their advertisements, but the assertion that Thompson and Company “CAN, DO, and WILL” sell their goods for prices as low as any to be found in New England suggests that they may have provided some instructions about the appearance of their notice.

In addition to price, Thompson and Company also promised an array of choices for their customers. They stocked a “COMPLEAT and UNIVERSAL Assortment of European and East-India GOODS.” Many advertisers would have considered such language sufficient, but Thompson and Company further elaborated. Their inventory consisted of “a GREAT VARIETY of Articles,” so many that they were “too numerous to be comprized within the Limits of an Advertisement.” That was a clever approach, especially considering that many advertisers did attempt to list as many items as possible in their newspaper advertisements. Some notices included dozens, scores, or even hundreds of items, extending as much as an entire column or, in some cases, filling an entire page. Readers certainly would have been familiar with such advertisements, making it all the more compelling that Thompson and Company proclaimed that even making such an attempt was futile.

Although Thompson and Company selected two of the most common advertising appeals of the era, they added an innovative touch to both. They did not merely reiterate the standard language of price and choice found in so many advertisements in newspapers printed throughout the colonies. Instead, they started with strategies that advertisers already considered effective and reworked them to make them even more enticing for prospective customers.

January 28

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

Providence Gazette (January 28, 1769).

“He determines to sell as cheap for cash as any in Providence.”

Thomas Greene’s advertisement for “A fresh Assortment of DRY-GOODS” ran in the Providence Gazette for the first time on January 28, 1769. In it, he listed twenty different kinds of textiles, including “kerseys, serges, cotton velvets, Scotch plaid, Irish linens, garlix, dowlas and checks.” He also carried stockings, handkerchiefs, and shoes as well as “a great number of other articles in the dry-good way.” Greene supplemented this merchandise with imported grocery items, including “tea, chocolate, raisins, … rum, sugar and melasses.” While not as extensive as other advertisements that sometimes appeared in the Providence Gazette, Greene’s notice enumerated sufficient items to suggest to customers that they could choose from among an array of merchandise at his store “just below the Great Bridge.”

In addition to consumer choice, Greene also made an appeal to price. When he concluded his list of wares, he proclaimed that “he determines to sell as cheap for cash as any in Providence.” In so doing, he indicated his willingness to participate in a price war with other purveyors of dry goods located in the city. Although not unknown, such forceful language was not as common as more general invocations of low prices. Samuel Chace’s advertisement for “A NEW and general Assortment of English and Indi GOODS” in the same issue, for instance, stated that he would “sell cheap,” but did not make any implicit comparisons to the prices charged by any of his competitors. Samuel Chace’s advertisement had been running in the Providence Gazette for three months; William Chace, on the other hand, had inserted a new advertisement the previous week. In it, he declared that “he is determined to sell” his “good Assortment of DRY GOODS” for prices “as cheap, if not cheaper, than any of their Kind are to be sold in Providence.” Furthermore, he assured prospective customers that he “doubts not but they may lay out their Money to their Satisfaction” as his shop, also located “Just below the Great Bridge.”

Greene and Chace were nearby neighbors and competitors. Only a week after Chace launched an advertisement that made exceptional claims about the prices he charged, Greene published his own advertisement to inform prospective customers that they were just as likely to enjoy the same bargains at his store. Their notices appeared in the same column, with two short advertisements appearing between them, making it easy for readers to compare their appeals and place them in conversation with each other. Savvy consumers already sought out the best prices, but these competing advertisements further encouraged comparison shopping.

January 21

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

Providence Gazette (January 21, 1769).

“RUN away from his Master … a well-set Negro Manm Slave, named Isaac.”

By the time the January 21, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette was published, Samuel Rose had been placing an advertisement offering a reward for “a well-set Negro Man Slave, named Isaac,” who had run away in late November of the previous year for an entire month. Isaac had “a Scar on his Forehead” and a “thick Beard.” According to Rose, the enslaved man could “play on a Fiddle, and loves strong Drink,” though savvy readers likely realized that many slaveholder exaggerated when it came to that latter detail. Rose also warned “Masters of Vessels, and others” against providing assistance, whether “carrying off or harbouring” Isaac.

The tone of this advertisement advanced starkly different rhetoric than other items published on the same page and elsewhere throughout the issue. John Carter’s advertisement for “A NEW EDITION” of Abraham Weatherwise’s “New-England TOWN and COUNTRY Almanack” filled the entire column immediately to the right. The notable contents of the almanac promoted in the advertisement included “a beautiful poetical Essay on Public Spirit, wrote by an American Patriot” and a Portrait of the celebrated JOHN WILKES, Esq.,” the radical English politician and journalist considered friendly to the American cause during the imperial crisis that led to the Revolution. In the upper left corner of the page, a poem entitled “ADDRESS to LIBERTY” by “AMERICANUS” appeared before any of advertisements. The poem lamented recent encroachments on colonists’ liberty by “tyrant Lords,” but it addressed only the position of white colonists and not enslaved men, women, and children. The poem did not make room for Isaac the justice that was supposed to be extended to English sons who had “cross’d th’atlantic Seas / To Climes unknown.” News filled most of the rest of the issue, including a “humble Address of the House of Commons to the KING.” Parliament stated that it would “be ever ready to hear any real grievance of Your Majesty’s American subjects,” but insisted it was “one of our most important duties, to maintain entire and inviolate the supreme authority of the legislature of Great-Britain, over every part of the British empire.” Colonists considered this enslavement.

Amidst all of this rhetoric circulating in conversations and the public prints, Isaac determined to seize his own liberty. Although Rose did not recognize it, the enslaved man put into action the ideals that so many of his white neighbors espoused in the late 1760s.

January 14

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

Providence Gazette (January 14, 1769).

“To be Sold at the Golden Eagle.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, advertisers used a variety of other means to advise prospective customers where to find their shops and stores. Consider the directions offered in advertisements in the January 14, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Samuel Chace listed his location as “just below the Great Bridge.” Similarly, Samuel Black specified that his store was “on the West Side of the Great Bridge, and near the Long Wharff.” Other advertisers included even more elaborate instructions. Darius Sessions reported that his shop was “on the main Street, between the Court-House and Church, and directly opposite the large Button-Wood Tree.” Patrick Mackey announced that “he has opened a Skinner’s Shop near the Hay-Ward, on the East Side of the Great Bridge, between Mr. Godfry’s and the Sign of the Bull.” These advertisers expected prospective customers would navigate the city via a combination of street names, landmarks, and shop signs.

In contrast, another advertisement, one that did not name the merchant or shopkeeper who inserted it in the Providence Gazette, simply proclaimed, “a general Assortment of ENGLISH and HARD WARE GOODS, to be Sold at the Golden Eagle.” The store operated by Joseph Russell and William Russell was so renowned that its location did not require elaboration. The Russells considered it so well known that they did not need to include their names in the advertisement. Instead, their shop sign served as the sole representation of their business in the public prints. “Golden Eagle” even appeared in larger font, making it the central focus of advertisement. In other advertisements, the names “Samuel Chace,” “Samuel Black,” and “Darius Sessions” drew attention as headlines in font the same size as “Golden Eagle.” This was not the first time that the Russells had excluded their names in favor of having their shop sign stand in for them. A brief advertisement published two months earlier informed readers about “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” That they repeatedly deployed this strategy suggests their confidence that their shop sign was known and recognized, both by readers who perused the Providence Gazette and by prospective customers who traversed the streets of Providence.

January 7

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

Providence Gazette (January 7, 1769).

“A HORSE stolen!”

Among the new advertisements that ran in the January 7, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, one proclaimed “A HORSE stolen!” Following that headline, the advertisement included further details, such as a description of the horse (“14 Hands and a half high, well set, 9 Years old, a dark Sorrel, intermixed with some white Hairs, and has some Spots under the Saddle”) and the date and time it had been stolen (“Tuesday Evening, the 27th of December”). The thief had made off with the saddle, bridle, and saddlebags as well. Finally, the advertisement offered two rewards: five dollars for finding and returning the horse or ten dollars for capturing the thief along with locating the horse.

While most of contents of the advertisement were standard for the genre, the lively headline, including the exclamation point, was not. The headline did, however, echo the headline in another advertisement in the same issue, the Once more! that introduced an estate notice placed by executors Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold. That advertisement also ran in the previous issue. Perhaps Samuel Danielson, Jr., had seen Olney and Arnold’s estate notice. Perhaps it had influenced him to devise a bold headline for his own advertisement. The signature at the end of Danielson’s advertisement indicated that he composed it on January 5 (even though the theft took place on December 27). He certainly could have seen the contents of the December 31 edition, including Olney and Arnold’s “Once more!” notice, before composing the copy for his own advertisement.

Danielson’s “A HORSE stolen!” headline suggests that eighteenth-century readers noted innovations in advertising and that some advertisers adopted those innovations when placing their own notices in the public prints. Yet they did so unevenly. Many other advertisers continued to place notices that deployed their names as the headlines or did not feature headlines at all. Notable for their innovation in the eighteenth century, headlines like “Once more!” and “A HORSE stolen!” were precursors of a common strategy later incorporated into newspaper advertisements in the nineteenth century.

December 31

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

Providence Gazette (December 31, 1768).

Once more!

In their capacity as the executors of the estate of Joseph Smith of North Providence, Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. In it, they called on creditors to attend a meeting to settle accounts and announced an auction of the deceased’s real estate. The contents of their advertisement did not differ from other estate notices, but the headline set it apart, drawing attention with a proclamation of “Once more!” Eighteenth-century advertisements did not always consist of dense text crowded on the page.

This innovative headline most likely emerged via collaboration between the advertisers and the compositor, perhaps even accidentally. Many eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements did not feature headlines at all. Some treated the advertiser’s name as the headline or otherwise used typography to make it the central focus. The names “Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson” all served as headlines for advertisements, each in italics and a font the same size as “Once more!” In another advertisement, “Gideon Young” appeared in the middle, but in a significantly larger font. Other advertisements used text other than names as headlines. John Carter’s advertisement for an almanac deployed “A NEW EDITION” at the top. A real estate advertisement used “TO BE SOLD” and an advertisement for a runaway slave used “FIVE DOLLARS Reward.” Both were standard formulations when it came to introducing information to newspaper readers.

On the other hand, “Once more!” was different than anything else that usually appeared in the headlines of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. Playful and quirky, it was a precursor to the advertisements that regularly appeared in American newspapers in the nineteenth century. Its departure from standard practices for headlines accompanying advertisements in the 1760s suggests that Olney and Arnold did not merely go through the motions of placing an announcement in the public prints. Instead, they devised copy intended to draw more attention than formulaic language would have garnered. The uniqueness of “Once more!” was calculated to arouse curiosity among readers. That it appeared in italics and larger font was most likely a fortunate accident, considering that the compositor gave other headlines the same treatment. (Recall Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson.”) Still, it signaled the possibilities of combining clever copy with unconventional typography, a strategy that subsequent generations of advertisers and compositors would explore much more extensively.

December 24

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

Providence Gazette (December 24, 1768).

“PATRICK MACKEY … has opened a Skinner’s Shop.”

When Patrick Mackey arrived in Providence from Philadelphia, he set about establishing himself in a new town and building a clientele for his business by placing an advertisement in the December 24, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. He announced that “he has opened a Skinner’s Shop near the Hay-Ward, on the East Side of the Great Bridge, between Mr. Godfry’s and the Sign of the Bull,” offering familiar landmarks to aid customers in navigating to his location. Realizing that prospective customers were unfamiliar with his work, Mackey underscored that “he has worked in the principal Parts of Europe and America.” As a result, he “doubts not of gaining the Approbation of his Customers” once they gave him the opportunity to provide his services. He offered further assurances that his leather and skins were “dressed in the best Manner.” In case skill and quality were not sufficient to draw clients to the newcomer’s shop, Mackey also promoted his prices, proclaiming that he sold his wares “as cheap as any in Town.” In his first introduction to Providence in the public prints, Mackey deployed several of the most common advertising appeals used by artisans in eighteenth-century America.

Yet Mackey went beyond the expected methods of encouraging prospective customers to patronize his business. He also invoked his collaboration with colleagues who enhanced the services available at his shop. In addition to selling materials, he also had a “Breeches-maker, who learned his Business in Europe” on staff to transform his leathers and skins into garments for “Any Gentlemen who may please to employ him.” In addition, Mackey reported in a nota bene that Benjamin Coates, a cordwainer, “carries on his Business at the same Place.” Clients interested in Mackey’s services could also “be suited in the best Manner with all Kinds of Boots, Spatterdashes, Shoes, Slippers, &c.” at the same location. In his efforts to build his customer base, Mackey offered convenience in addition to quality and low prices. His clients did not need to visit other artisans at other locations after acquiring materials at his shop. Instead, they could consult directly with a cordwainer and a breechesmaker on the premises. All three artisans stood to benefit from such an arrangement. Increased patronage for one of them likely yielded additional business for the others.

December 17

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

Providence Gazette (December 17, 1768).

A NEW EDITION. … THE New-England TOWN and COUNTRY Almanack.”

With only two weeks remaining before the new year, John Carter placed the most extensive advertisement yet for the New-England Town and Country Almanack … for the Year of our Lord 1769 in the December 17, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. It filled an entire column. Carter and his former partner, Sarah Goddard, had previously advertised the almanac, commencing their promotional campaign in the final week of August with a notice that was almost as lengthy. Just a few weeks later they ran an updated advertisement announcing that they had published a second edition, implying significant demand for the New-England Town and Country Almanack. Their advertising efforts tapered off as fall continued.

Perhaps other concerns, especially Goddard’s retirement, the dissolution of their partnership, and Carter assuming sole responsibility for the Providence Gazette and the other operations of the printing office, took precedence over advertising an almanac that may have been selling quite well already. After all, this advertisement, even more extensive than any previous notice, proclaimed, “A NEW EDITION. Just PUBLISHED.” Steady demand may have prompted Carter to take the almanac to press once again, but he hedged his bets by making sure that readers of the Providence Gazette were aware that they could purchase it “Wholesale and Retail” at the printing office or from “the several Merchants and Shopkeepers of Providence and Newport.” For the past five weeks Carter ran his address “To the PUBLIC” in the newspapers that he now operated on his own. Publishing and promoting a new edition of the New-England Town and Country Almanack signaled that the transition had concluded.

The transition to sole proprietorship of the Providence Gazette and the printing office did not, however, lead to new strategies for marketing the almanac. Carter’s advertisement reiterated many of the appeals made in earlier notices, including lengthy descriptions of the contents to convince prospective customers of the almanac’s value. He once again emphasized the frontispiece, “a Portrait of the celebrated JOHN WILKES, Esq; engraved from an original Painting,” expecting that the portrait and “some Anecdotes of that most extraordinary Personage,” a defender of American liberties, would resonate with colonists. He did conclude with a new offer: “A considerable Allowance will be made to those who take a Quantity.” Such discounts were standard, but worth underscoring now that Carter had “A NEW EDITION” and only two weeks before the new year.

Almanacs were big business for colonial printers, comprising an important revenue stream. The potential profits may have convinced Carter to issue one more edition of the New-England Town and Country Almanack in hopes of getting his new enterprise off to a successful start. To that end, he devoted significant space in his own newspaper to promoting the almanac, filling an entire column that otherwise would have contained news content or paid notices. Doing so signaled his willingness to take reasonable risks and, ultimately, his confidence in operating the printing office as the sole proprietor.

December 10

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

Providence Gazette (December 10, 1768).

“The Sign of the Black Boy and Butt.”

No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children happened to appear in the December 10, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, but that did not mean that the black body was absent from the commercial landscape of the port city that newspaper served. Jonathan Russell inserted an advertisement for his “large and fresh Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS,” noting that readers would easily recognize his store “on the West Side of the Great Bridge” because “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” marked its location. It was not the first time that he invoked his shop sign when giving directions to prospective customers, though he had previously referred to it simply as “the Sign of the BLACK-BOY.” Perhaps he had acquired a new sign, but it may have always included a depiction of a butt, a large cask. Russell’s description of it could have shifted over time.

Even when Russell was not advertising in the local newspaper, his sign was constantly on display in Providence, reminding residents and visitors alike of the connections between black bodies and colonial commerce. Nor was Russell the only merchant or shopkeeper to adopt such iconography. Two years earlier Augustus Deley placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant to proclaim that he “CONTINUES to carry on the Business of manufacturing TOBACCO … for chewing or smoaking.” Interested parties could find him “At the Sign of the Black Boy, Near the North Meeting-House in Hartford.” Signs depicting black boys had a long history in New England. More than thirty years earlier, Jonathan Williams placed an advertisement for imported wine and New England rum sold “at the Black Boy and Butt.”[1] In some instances, the youths represented enslaved workers closely associated with the products sold. Such was the case for Deley’s tobacco, grown on plantations in other colonies, and Williams’s rum, produced from molasses acquired as a byproduct of sugar cultivation on Caribbean plantations. The connection between Russell’s “Black Boy” and his “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” was not as immediate. Instead, it offered a shorthand description of the networks of trade, production, and consumption that crisscrossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Commercial exchange in Providence was part of a larger system that included the transatlantic slave trade and forced labor at sites of cultivation and production. Residents of Providence did not need “the Sign of the Black Boy and Butt” to inform them of that. Instead, it testified to a reality that was familiar to consumers throughout the Atlantic world.

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[1] New England Weekly Journal (March 8, 1737).