May 23

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

May 23 - 5:23:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 23, 1767).

“WILLIAM ROGERS, Of Newport, Rhode-Island … has newly furnished his Shop with a neat Assortment of GOODS.”

In general, eighteenth-century advertisers tended to place notices only in their local newspapers, though members of the book trades sometimes accounted for exceptions as they cooperated with colleagues to create larger markets for promoting and distributing reading materials. What qualified as a local newspaper depended on the perspective of readers and advertisers since newspapers were printed only in slightly more than a dozen cities and towns in 1767. Most publications thus served an extensive hinterland, often an entire colony and sometimes a region that included portions of other colonies as well. The Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, had subscribers throughout the colony as well as Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. In the absence of local newspapers to carry their marketing messages, shopkeepers and others in those colonies sometimes advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the other newspapers printed in Philadelphia but distributed widely.

William Rogers “Of Newport, Rhode-Island, on the Parade opposite the Custom-House” did not want for a local newspaper to carry his advertisements. Samuel Hall published the Newport Mercury from his printing shop on Thames Street. The Mercury was Newport’s only newspaper. This did not, however, prevent Rogers from advertising in multiple publications. He took the rather extraordinary action of injecting himself into the Providence market when he placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. Several shopkeepers who advertised regularly in the Gazette (including Thompson and Arnold, Joseph and William Russell, Benjamin and Edward Thurber, and James Green) already competed with each other to gain both attention in the public prints and customers in their shops. Rogers presented the “neat Assortment of GOODS” in his shop as a viable alternative, especially since “he intends to sell as cheap as can be bought at any Shop in PROVIDENCE.” In the course of the week, Rogers’ advertisement appeared in both the Providence Gazette and the Newport Mercury.

Rogers may not have expected to garner many customers from Providence, but he almost certainly aimed to attract readers of the Providence Gazette elsewhere in Rhode Island, especially those who lived between Providence and Newport. Shopkeepers in Providence served the city’s hinterland as well as their neighbors in the city. William Rogers wanted some of that business for himself.

May 16

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

May 16 - 5:16:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 16, 1767)

“Customers coming from the Westward, may save both Time and Shoe-Leather by calling at their aforesaid Shops.”

Playful patter was not usually part of eighteenth-century advertisements, but James Brown and Benoni Pearce needed to do something to compensate for the location of their shops “On the West Side of the Great-Bridge … in Providence.” That put them beyond the center of the small city, founded on the east side of the basin created by the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers. A map drawn by a British military surveyor, published in London in 1777, shows that Providence primarily stretched along the east side of the basin. This included a fort and the college (now Brown University). However, some colonists built homes and businesses on the west side of the basin. The Great Bridge, first constructed in 1711 and widened in 1744, connected one side of basin to the other.

May 16 - Detail of Map
Detail of Charles Blaskowitz, A Topographical Chart of the Bay of Narraganset in the Province of New England (London: Engraved and Printed for William Faden, 1777). Courtesy Library of Congress.

Realizing that many of their competitors were clustered along the streets on the east side, Brown and Pearce decided to promote their location as a convenience for some of the readers of the Providence Gazette. Especially for those who resided beyond the small port, the shopkeepers “think that their Customers coming from the Westward, may save both Time and Shoe-Leather by calling at their aforesaid Shops.” There was no need to cross the Great Bridge! Doing so, the shopkeepers slyly hinted, wasted valuable time and resources when they could simply choose from among the “neat Assortment of GOODS, suitable for the Season” that Brown and Pearce stocked in their shops. At the same time, the shopkeepers did not want their neighbors to the east to feel unwelcome. They pledged that “those on the other Side, will be well paid for crossing the Pavements, and be kindly received and well used.” It was a waste of time (and shoe leather!) to cross the bridge to visit the shops to the east, but well worth the time to cross in the opposite direction. Other virtues, including good service and a kind reception, more than made up for any inconvenience or extra time spent reaching their shops.

The banter in Brown and Pearce’s advertisement made it memorable. They did not consider it necessary to enumerate their assortment of goods or make detailed promises about low prices. Instead, they let their affable demeanor do the work of attracting customers to “the West Side of the Great-Bridge” to do their shopping.

May 2

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

May 2 - 5:2:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 2, 1767).

“They hope to accommodate their Customers with whatever they may want.”

Thompson and Arnold frequently advertised in the Providence Gazette. At a glance, their notices resembled those placed by shopkeepers in newspapers throughout the colonies, but Thompson and Arnold often added at least one additional element to distinguish their marketing from the efforts of their competitors.

Consider today’s advertisement. It made several of the standard appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements for consumer goods and services: price (“at the cheapest Rate”), choice (an “Assortment of English and India Goods”), current fashions (the “Assortment” was “new and fresh”), and connections to the cosmopolitan center of the empire (“imported in the last Ships from LONDON”). To underscore the extent of consumer choice, Thompson and Arnold listed dozens of items in a dense paragraph. Like other retailers, they packed a variety of appeals into a relatively short advertisement.

Most of their counterparts incorporated one or more of these strategies but did little to elaborate on them. Thompson and Arnold, on the other hand, supplemented the formulaic format and language of these appeals with an animated nota bene, an entire paragraph that expanded on their low prices and the extensive choices they presented to customers. The shopkeepers boasted that they could “accommodate their Customers with whatever they may want” not only because they stocked so much merchandise but also because their inventory was superior to what could be found anywhere else in Providence. Their customers benefited from the convenience of what has become known as one-stop shopping; Thompson and Arnold had “a greater variety, and a larger quantity of goods than can be found in any one store in this town.” Potential customers did not need to worry about popular or inexpensive items selling out!

Unlike other shopkeepers that mentioned prices once at the beginning of an advertisement or perhaps again at the end, Thompson and Arnold doubled down on their low prices in their nota bene. They beat the prices they charged in the past (“they will now sell their goods much cheaper than they have yet sold”), but they also undersold their competitors (“cheaper than can be bought elsewhere in this town”).

Given that some advertisements lingered in colonial newspapers for weeks or months, Thompson and Arnold also affixed a date (“May 2, 1767,” the date of that issue of the Providence Gazette) so readers and potential customers would be aware of the timeliness of the appeals they made.

On their own, the introduction and list of goods in Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement replicated many other advertisement for consumer goods published in the 1760s, advancing multiple appeals to potential customers but each of them briefly. To garner additional attention and generate more business, Thompson and Arnold inserted an additional paragraph elaborating on two of those appeals, price and choice.

April 25

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

Apr 25 - 4:25:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 25, 1767).

“He now performs all Sorts of Writing and Scrivening Business as usual.”

Silas Downer, a scrivener, went out of town on business for some time, making it necessary to place an advertisement announcing his return once he was again in Providence. Downer did not give too many particulars, though he indicated that he was “returned from one of the Southern Colonies, where he hath been a few Weeks transacting some Business of Consequence.” This may have disrupted the services he usually provided to the residents of Providence; he explained that the business that called him out of town “unexpectedly demanded his Presence.” Whatever the cause of his absence, Downer was back in town, open for business, and ready to work with clients.

As a scrivener, he penned a variety of documents, including legal documents. He promised to do so “with Secrecy, Fidelity, and Dispatch.” Perhaps he intended for the first portion of his advertisement to testify to the “Secrecy” that was part of his profession. After all, he offered a substantial explanation for his departure without revealing any specific information. He demonstrated his ability to discuss his own affairs without disclosing any of the other parties involved, the nature of the business that called him away from Providence, or even his destination in “one of the Southern Colonies.” In so doing, he exhibited both “Fidelity” to his clients and “Dispatch” in handling matters so quickly. He also brought his work to a successful conclusion, having “executed his Commission,” whatever it may have been. Without explicitly stating the quality of his own character, Downer provided evidence for potential customers to assess whether he possessed the virtues that made for an effective and trustworthy scrivener.

To supplement that appeal, Downer also acknowledged his “Old Customers” while inviting them and new clients “to favor him with their Business.” Anyone uncertain about hiring the scrivener could put stock in the fact that others had previously trusted his “Secrecy, Fidelity, and Dispatch.”

An unexpected departure may have disrupted and damaged Downer’s services in Providence, but the scrivener crafted an advertisement that transformed his temporary absence into an opportunity to demonstrate the various virtues he brought to his occupation. He conducted “Business of Consequence” and clients could depend on him to do the same when it came to the documents he composed for them as well.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 18 - 4:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 18, 1767).

“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”

I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.

Apr 18 - Census
Rhode Island Census for 1774 (Newport: Solomon Southwick, 1774).  Courtesy John Carter Brown Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.

On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 12

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 12 - 4:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 11, 1767).

“Pork, Rice, and Indigo”

The Not-So-Bare Necessities! As we can see in this advertisement, newspapers were a prime place for merchants to advertise popular goods. Items ranging from necessary food ingredients, such as flour and rice, all the way to saws and steel were advertised and accessible to customers in the colonies. However, purchasing these items meant more than just having something of worth; purchasing these items sometimes also had added political and social connotations.

The consumer culture seen in this advertisement was present not only in Providence but also throughout the colonies. The historians at Colonial Williamsburg indicate that one of the main contributors to this was the fact that colonists had more money by the middle of the eighteenth century than they previously did. They could then purchase items, such as indigo, as a luxury because they had money left over after purchasing their basic necessities. It was a luxury to have more items, but this also made for a better reputation. If colonists could show that they could purchase things beyond just the necessities, it must mean that they have some form of disposable wealth. However, this could be misleading, especially with the rise of credit, which allowed individuals to purchase items without having the money upfront to pay for them. The rise of the use of credit as well as competition to display status both gave way the purchasing of goods beyond just basics that was part of the consumer revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

For the past several months, the Adverts 250 Project has tracked the relative scarcity of advertising that appeared in the Providence Gazette, compared to newspapers published in other port cities, during the winter of 1766 and 1767. With the arrival of spring, the number and total column space increased, including today’s advertisement from Black and Stewart. This advertisement, however, was not the only notice that Black and Stewart placed in the April 11, 1767, issue of the Providence Gazette. The partners inserted a second notice announcing that they wished to acquire “the best Kind of Hogshead Hoops, Red Oak Hogshead Staves, and Yellow Pine Boards.”

A single advertiser placing two separate notices concerning the exchange of goods or commodities in one issue was relatively rare in the late 1760s, at least as far as those outside the book trades were concerned. Printers frequently filled the pages of their own publications with multiple advertisements, a privilege of operating the press, but merchants, shopkeepers, and others buying and selling goods tended to limit themselves to just one advertisement at a time. Some certainly revised the copy or submitted new advertisements to made sure they always had a presence in the public prints, but usually not multiple notices per issue. A few departed from this general rule, mostly in the major port cities of Boston and Charleston.

That made Black and Stewart’s multiple advertisements all the more notable. In the space of just a couple of months, the Providence Gazette shifted from including virtually no advertising (except notices inserted by the printers) to featuring more than one notice placed by the same advertisers. While the significance of this example should not be exaggerated, it is worth noting that advertisers beyond the largest urban centers adopted a practice previously only identified in major port cities, places where multiple newspapers competed for readers and advertisers. Although newspapers printed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston provide the most plentiful examples of advertising in the 1760s, entrepreneurs in other places also experimented with format and frequency as they developed their own marketing strategies.

April 11

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar

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

Apr 11 - 4:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 11, 1767).

“TO BE SOLD, A likely, healthy, Negro Boy”

Slave Sales in the North! I would like to highlight the location of this advertisement regarding a slave for sale: Providence, Rhode Island, a port city in one of the northernmost of the thirteen American colonies. When I initially saw that a Providence newspaper was advertising slavery, I felt very confused; my initial assumption was that slavery really did not exist all that much in the north, much less was advertised in newspapers. Upon further research, I discovered that slavery was very pivotal in colonial Rhode Island. By the mid 1700s, the time this advertisement was published, Rhode Island had the largest percentage of blacks in its population compared to other northern colonies.

Business was one of the reasons why there was a spike in slavery in Rhode Island. Local merchants participated in the flourishing transatlantic slave trade and benefited from trade with the West Indies, the source of rum and other goods. However, in the years after this advertisement Rhode Island saw a push for emancipation of slavery. Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara writes, “The state emancipated Revolutionary War soldiers in 1778, and the gradual emancipation law freed children born to slave mothers after 1784.”[1] Despite the business some hoped to continue, Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws in the spirit of the Revolution.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Shannon expressed her surprise at learning that slaves lived and worked in northern colonies, that they were bought and sold and advertised in newspapers. She certainly was not my first student to experience such surprise. For my part, I was not surprised to find out about her surprise. Instead, I expected it because I am well aware of one of the most common misconceptions concerning slavery in early America. Most Americans tend to write history backwards when it comes to slavery. They know that slavery was a “peculiar institution” in the South in the decades before the Civil War. That leads them to erroneously assume that slavery was never practiced in northern colonies and states. Historians, however, with their attention to change over time, challenge that misconception.

When I originally designed the Slavery Adverts 250 Project as a companion to the Adverts 250 Project, I intended it to be a collaborative project undertaken with students in my classes. Rather than simply tell them about slavery in New England and the Middle Atlantic, I wanted them to discover its presence on their own as they engaged with primary sources. Rather than hearing an abstract presentation about the ubiquity of slavery throughout the colonies, I wanted them to see advertisements for slaves, such as today’s advertisement for “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy,” printed along side news and advertisements for various other sorts of commerce. I hoped that participating in the research process would cement their understanding of the scope of slavery in colonial and Revolutionary America.

Shannon and others have reported that was indeed the case. Consider the advertisement Shannon selected to examine today in the context of all the advertisements concerning slavery placed in American newspapers during the week of April 9-15, 1767. Two appeared in the Providence Gazette. Another two were printed in the New-Hampshire Gazette. A total of five were distributed among three newspapers printed in Boston. Another fifteen were inserted in newspapers in the Middle Colonies. Overall, twenty-one out of sixty-one advertisements concerning slaves printed during that week appeared in newspapers in northern colonies. Even though the total population of slaves in those colonies was small compared to the Chesapeake and Lower South, the advertisements provide striking evidence of their presence. Whether on a plantation or in an urban port, bondage was still bondage for the “Likely, healthy Negro Boy” in today’s advertisement.

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[1] Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2009), 4.