July 7

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

Jul 7 - 7:7:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 7, 1770).

“Robert Bell, BOOKSELLER and AUCTIONIER.”

Historians of the book have long credited Robert Bell as one of the most innovative, industrious, and successful booksellers in eighteenth-century America.  His auctions achieved great success, due in part to the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and in part to the marketing strategies he developed.  Carl Bridenbaugh asserts that Bell “institutionalized the colonial book auction, and more than any one else in [the era of the American Revolution] laid the solid foundations for book publishing in America.”[1]

At the time that he ran his advertisement for “An OLD LOOKING-GLASS For the LAITY and CLERGY Of all Denominations” in the Providence Gazette in the summer of 1770, he had only recently arrived in the colonies.  James N. Green explains that Bell, “a Scot who reached Philadelphia in 1768 after a career as a reprinter of English properties in Ireland, was the first American bookseller to reprint systematically new and popular British books in direct competition with imports.”[2]  This distinguished him from other booksellers who sold primarily imported books rather than taking on the risk and expense of publishing and selling American editions.  In 1770, Bell circulated a subscription proposal for Blackstone’s Commentaries.  Upon acquiring sufficient subscribers, he published an American edition in 1771 and 1772.  Green echoes Bridenbaugh, describing Bell as an “innovative and dynamic” promoter of printed wares who provided “a model of what the book culture of an independent country might be like, and he foreshadowed the transformation of the book trade in the postwar years.”[3]

Yet Bell sometimes resorted to traditional means of advertising books, especially near the beginning of his career in America.  Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette was muted compared to others.  Some of his subsequent newspaper advertisements addressed readers and prospective customers as “Sons of Science,” “Sentimentalists of America,” and “The Lovers of literary entertainment, amusement and instruction.”[4]  By 1780, Bell devised advertisements that hawked his own personality in addition to describing the community of readers, including in a broadsheet in which he described himself as “Bookseller, Provedore to the Sentimentalists, and Professor of BOOK-AUCTIONEERING in America.”  According to Green, “Before Bell, book advertisements consisted of nothing more than a transcription of their titles; no one had ever used language to sell books in this way.”[5]  The length of Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette, however, set it apart from others in the same issue, but the language did not distinguish it from other advertisements for books from the period.  The personality associated with his bookselling and auctioneering enterprise was still a work in progress.

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[1] Carl Bridenbaugh, “The Press and the Book in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65, no. 1 (January 1941): 16.

[2] James N. Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing,” in Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, eds., An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840, vol. 2, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 77.

[3] Green, “Rise of Book Publishing,” 77.

[4] Bridenbaugh, “Press and the Book,” 15.

[5] James N. Green, “English Books and Printing in the Age of Franklin,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, vol. 1, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press with the American Antiquarian Society, 2007), 285.

June 30

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

Jun 30 - 6:30:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 30, 1770).

“BLANKS.”

John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, used the colophon to promote the various goods and services available “at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeare’s Head.”  He advised the community that he accepted “Subscriptions, Advertisements, Articles and Letters of Intelligence” for the newspaper and performed “all Manner of PRINTING-WORK.”  In addition to job printing, Carter also produced a variety of blanks or printed forms for commercial and legal purposes, from “Bills of Lading” and “Policies of Insurance” to “Long and short Powers of Attorney” and “Summonses for the Superior and Inferior Courts.”  Carter did not, however, mention blanks in the colophon; instead, he regularly ran advertisements about them.

Consider the extant issues of the Providence Gazette for 1770.  The America’s Historical Newspapers database includes fifty-one of the fifty-two issues published on Saturdays that year.  (It includes the supplement, but not the standard issue, for February 10.)  Advertisements for blanks appeared in thirty-two of those issues, nearly two out of three published that year.  This suggests that Carter considered blanks an important supplement to the revenue he earned from subscriptions, advertising, and job printing.  Those advertisements took three forms.  A short version consisted of only two lines that informed readers “BLANKS of all Kinds Sold by the Printer hereof.”  It ran fifteen times.[1]  A variation ran twice more.[2]  It added two lines promoting “A fresh Parcel of DEEDS, printed on beautiful Paper.”  A lengthier advertisement listed a dozen blanks for use in Rhode Island as well as “various Kinds of Blanks for the Colony of CONNECTICUT.”  Carter served a regional market.  That advertisement ran fifteen times.[3]

In addition to increasing revenues, these advertisements had another purpose.  They operated as filler in the sense that they completed the columns and the pages of the Providence Gazette, often appearing at the bottom of a column.  The compositor chose the advertisement of the appropriate length to fill the space.  While that use of these advertisements should not be overlooked, it also should not be exaggerated.  The issues of the Providence Gazette that did not include any version of the advertisement for blanks tended to feature advertisements for almanacs, pamphlets, and books sold at the printing office.  Carter reserved space in his newspaper for advertisements about his own merchandise, highlighting new publications when they came off the press but reverting to notices about blanks on other occasions.

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[1] February 3, 17, 24; March 3; July 28; August 4, 18; September 1, 22; October 20, 27; November 3, 24; December 1, 8.

[2] November 10, 17.

[3] March 17, 24; April 14, 21, 28; May 12, 19, 26; June 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; July 7, 14.

June 23

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

Jun 23 - 6:23:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 23, 1770).

“Supplied with genuine Medicines, very cheap.”

In the summer of 1770, Amos Throop sold a “compleat Assortment of MEDICINES” at his shop in Providence, appropriately identified by “the Sign of the Golden Pestle and Mortar.”  His inventory included a variety of popular patent medicines imported from London, including “Hooper’s, Lockyer’s, and Anderson’s genuine Pills,” “Stoughton’s Elixir,” and “Hill’s Balsam of Honey.”

In an advertisement in the Providence Gazette, the apothecary addressed different sorts of prospective customers.  He informed “Country Practitioners” that he could fill their orders “as cheap as they can be served in Boston, or elsewhere.”  Throop competed in a regional market; druggists in other port towns also imported medicines from London.  Prospective customers could send away to Boston, Newport, or even New York if they anticipated bargain prices, but Throop sought to assure them that they did not need to do so.  Throop may have anticipated particular benefits from cultivating this clientele.  “Country Practitioners” were more likely than others to purchase by volume.  Their patronage indirectly testified to the efficacy of Throop’s medicines and his standing as a trusted apothecary.

Those factors may have helped him attract other customers who did not practice medicine.  Throop also invited “Families in Town and Country” to shop at the Golden Pestle and Mortar.  He promised them low prices, but he also emphasized customer service, stating that they “may depend on being used in the best Manner.”  In addition, he also attempted to allay concerns about purchasing counterfeit remedies.  Throop pledged to supply his customers “with genuine Medicines,” putting his own reputation on the line as a bulwark against bogus elixirs and nostrums.  When it came to patent medicines, the fear of forgeries merited reiterating that his inventory was “genuine” when he listed the choices available at his shop.

The neighborhood pharmacy is ubiquitous in the twenty-first century, but that was not the kind of business that Throop operated in Providence in the eighteenth century.  Instead, he served both local residents and “Country Practitioners” and “Families in Town and Country,” competing with apothecaries in Boston and other towns.  To do so effectively, he had to depict the many advantages of choosing the Golden Pestle and Mortar, from low prices to authentic medicines to good customer service.

June 16

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

Jun 16 - 6:16:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 16, 1770).

They may depend on having their Commands executed after the newest and most genteel Fashions.”

When Daniel Stillwell, a tailor, placed an advertisement in the June 16, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, he made one of the most common and important appeals deployed by colonists who followed his trade.  He pledged that clients “may depend on having their Commands executed after the newest and most genteel Fashions.”  Tailors and others in the garment trades often made appeals to price, quality, and fashion in their advertisements.  Stillwell, like other tailors, believed that price and quality might not have mattered much to those who wished for their clothing to communicate their gentility if their garments, trimmings, and accessories did not actually achieve the desired purpose.  Reasonable prices and good quality were no substitute for making the right impression.  Stillwell’s work as a tailor required a special kind of expertise beyond measuring, cutting, and sewing.  He had to be a keen observer of changing tastes and trends so he could deliver “the newest and most genteel Fashions” to his clients.

To that end, Stillwell informed prospective customers that he “has had great Opportunities of seeing the different Methods of working.”  Although he did not elaborate on those experiences, this statement suggested to readers that Stillwell refused to become stagnant in his trade.  Rather than learning one method or technique and then relying on it exclusively, he consulted with other tailors and then incorporated new and different techniques, further enhancing his skill.  In so doing, he joined the many artisans who asserted that their skill and experience prepared them to “give Satisfaction” to those who employed them or purchased the wares they produced.  Stillwell was no novice; instead, he “carries on his Business in all its Branches,” proficiently doing so because of the care he had taken in “seeing the different Methods of working.” Simply observing current fashions was not sufficient for someone in his trade who was unable to replicate them.  Stillwell sought to assure prospective clients that he possessed two kinds of knowledge necessary for serving them, a discerning knowledge of the latest styles and a thorough knowledge of the methods of his trade that would allow him to outfit customers accordingly.

June 9

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

Jun 9 - 6:9:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 9, 1770).

“Having engaged two Workmen … he proposes shortly to manufacture all Kinds of Stone Ware.”

When Joseph Wilson, a potter, moved to a new location late in the spring of 1770, he placed an advertisement “to inform the Public, particularly his old Customers,” where they could find him.  He also reminded readers of the Providence Gazette that “he continues to sell all Kinds of Earthen Ware,” inviting both new and returning customers to visit his shop.

At the conclusion of his advertisement, Wilson included a nota bene to request that prospective customers take note of the employees he recently hired.  “Having engaged two Workmen from New-York and Philadelphia,” Wilson declared, “he proposes shortly to manufacture all Kinds of Stone Ware, in the neatest and best Manner.”  Although artisans occasionally mentioned others who worked in their shops, they did so relatively rarely in their newspaper advertisements.  They usually assumed sole responsibility and took sole credit for the items they produced and sold.

Wilson likely expected to derive certain benefits from mentioning the “two Workmen” that he now employed.  Doing so suggested that his business was expanding, indicative of his own skill and careful management as well as demand for his wares.  Noting that his new employees came from New York and Philadelphia, two of the largest cities in the colonies, also implied that he cast his net widely to enlist the most skilled assistants who would indeed produce pottery “in the neatest and best manner.”

Most advertisements for consumer goods and services concealed the contributions of the various people who worked in colonial shops and workshops, whether wives and other family members who waited on customers or assistants, apprentices, and enslaved artisans who performed much of the labor.  “JOSEPH WILSON, POTTER,” offered a rare acknowledgment that he did not operate the business alone, that others supplied their own skill and expertise in producing the merchandise that he offered for sale.

June 2

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

Jun 2 - 6:2:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 2, 1770).

“The Foundation is now building, and will be soon finished.”

In 1770, Rhode Island College (now Brown University) moved from Warren to its permanent location in Providence.  An advertisement that ran in the June 2 edition of the Providence Gazette advised that “ALL Person who have undertaken to supply any of the Timber for the COLLEGE, are desired to deliver the same as soon as possible, as the Foundation is now building, and will be soon finished.”  It further requested that “all those who subscribed Lime are desired to bring it immediately, as it is now much wanted.”  Three members of the committee overseeing fundraising for the construction of a new edifice to house the college signed the notice.  By then, the committee was familiar to readers of the Providence Gazette, having regularly placed advertisements encouraging prospective benefactors to contact them to make their donations to the college.

While it took the form of an advertisement, this notice delivered news about the progress of the construction of the college, providing coverage that did not always appear among the news items.  John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, included a short item about a ceremony for laying the foundation stone in the May 19 edition.  The advertisement placed by Stephen Hopkins, John Jenckes, and John Brown two weeks later gave an update as work continued.  Residents of Providence could make their own observations about the status of the building, but readers in other towns could not.  The committee’s advertisement helped to keep them informed.  It conveniently appeared almost immediately after news from Providence, separated only by a notice calling on those “indebted for this paper above one Year” to settle accounts.  Carter craftily inserted his own notice at the end of the news in order to draw greater attention, but the placement of the committee’s new advertisement suggested a continuation of news from Providence.  The next advertisement, promoting medicines sold by Amos Throop, more effectively signaled the transition to paid notices.  Many of the subsequent advertisements, however, were legal notices that also delivered news to readers.  News and advertising could not be easily delineated in colonial newspapers.

May 26

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

May 26 - 5:26:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 26, 1770).

“POT-ASH, PEARL-ASH, and SALTS.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the many merchants in New England who sought to acquire potash, pearl ash, and salts in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Potash production was a significant industry in the region in the second half of the eighteenth century.  Colonists produced pot ash, salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form, by leaching wood ashes and then evaporating the solution in potash kettles, leaving behind a white residue.  Potash and related commodities were used in making soap and gunpowder.  Starting in the 1760s, according to Carl Bridenbaugh, “potash became a staple commodity of New York and New England.”[1]

For several weeks in the spring of 1770, the Russells inserted an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce “CASH given for Pot-Ash, Pearl-Ash, and Salts,” a familiar refrain that appeared in newspapers published in Boston, New London, Portsmouth, and other towns in New England.  In the May 26 edition, their advertisement happened to run next to the “PRICES CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of the going rates for a variety of commodities traded in the town.  The prices current included potash at 30 pounds per ton, the more refined pearl ash at 40 pounds per ton, and black salts at 26 pounds per ton.  Any readers who heeded the Russells’ call for potash and related commodities could easily determine if the merchants offered a fair price.

Lists of prices current appeared in many colonial newspapers, a regular feature in some but not as frequently in others.  Readers could work back and forth between advertisements and the prices current to envision a more complete picture of local commerce.  Similarly, they could compare the shipping news, another feature of many colonial newspapers, to advertisements for consumer goods that indicated the ship and captain that delivered the merchandise.  The record of vessels arriving and departing port aided in determining how recently merchants and shopkeepers received their wares.  Advertisements in colonial newspapers did not necessarily stand alone.  Instead, colonists could engage in active reading that took into consideration delivered in both advertisements and other features in newspapers, including the shipping news and lists of prices current.

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[1] Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 105.

May 12

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

May 12 - 5:12:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 12, 1770).

“B L A N K S.”

John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, regularly inserted an advertisement for printed blanks into his own newspaper in 1770, using one element of his business to promote another.  Even when he did not run his notice for “BLANKS,” each edition concluded with a colophon that listed more than just Carter’s name and the place of publication.  It also advised readers that “all Manner of PRINTING-WORK is performed on reasonable Terms, with Fidelity and Expedition” at Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeare’s Head” in Providence.  The advertisement for “BLANKS” often supplemented the perpetual advertisement for job printing at the bottom of the final page of the Providence Gazette.

Carter catered to a variety of prospective customers, producing blanks (or forms) for “Apprentices Indentures,” “Bills of Lading,” “Bonds of several sorts,” and “Long and short Powers of Attorney,” to name just a few.  He also carried “various Kinds of Blanks for the colony of CONNECTICUT” for anyone tending to legal or commercial matters in the neighboring colony.

This advertisement moved around within the pages of the Providence Gazette.  Eighteenth-century printers often saved advertisements for their own goods and services for the bottom of columns, bringing those columns to the desired length after first inserting news and paid notices submitted by their customers.  Perhaps to increase the likelihood that readers would take note of it, Carter moved his advertisement around the page from week to week.  In the May 12, 1770, edition it occupied a privileged place as the first advertisement.  It also appeared in the center of the page, drawing the eye due to the amount of white space created by listing only one item per line.  Both the news and the other advertisements on the page consisted of dense paragraphs with little variation of font sizes.  Carter’s advertisement with its headline, “B L A N K S” in the largest font on the page, and ample white space positioned at the center of the page would have been nearly impossible for readers of the Providence Gazette to overlook.

May 5

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

May 5 - 5:5:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 5, 1770).

“One blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue, and has a blue Velvet Cape.”

George West listed an impressive array of garments in his advertisement in the May 5, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  He began with a “blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue, and has a blue Velvet Cape” before describing “a black Velvet Waistcoast, trimmed with black” and “one Pair of Black Velvet Breeches, trimmed with black, and lined with Leather.”  In addition, he mentioned a “Pair of Mouse-coloured Velvet Breeches, trimmed with the same, having Silk Knee-straps, lined with Leather” as well as a “new Beaver Hat,” a “new homespun Check S[h]irt,” and “two striped Cotton and Linen Shirts.”  Yet West was not a merchant nor a shopkeeper nor a tailor attempting to sell these garments to consumers.  Instead, he was the captain of the Sarah, “lying at Cushing’s Wharff, in Providence,” and the victim of a theft.  Someone had stolen the garments that he listed in his advertisement.

West’s notice testifies to one of the many ways that colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.  Many purchased new goods from retailers and artisans or acquired secondhand goods at auctions and estate sales.  Others, however, participated in what Serena Zabin has termed an “informal economy,” either stealing goods for their own use or purchasing (sometimes, but now always, unwittingly) goods that had been stolen and fenced.  Theft gave some colonists greater access to goods that otherwise would have been beyond their reach.  West’s “blue Broadcloth Coat, trimmed with blue” and its “blue Velvet Cape,” for instance, represented quite an investment, yet someone benefited from West’s sartorial sensibilities without spending a shilling … provided that he managed to remain undetected.

Advertisements placed by shopkeepers and tailors were not the only newspaper notices that commented on fashion and taste in eighteenth-century America.  Advertisements concerning stolen goods often went into as much detail or more when it came to describing garments and other goods that colonists sought to acquire, sometimes through nefarious means.

April 28

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

Apr 28 - 4:28:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 28, 1770).

“Mary, Wife of me the Subscriber, has refused my Bed and Board.”

In addition to advertisements for “CHOICE INDICO,” printed blanks, the London Coffeehouse in New London, and “Mens and Womens Shoes, Slippers, [and] Boots,” the paid notices in the April 28, 1770 edition of the Providence Gazette included two that testified to disorder.  Those advertisements described the transgressions of their subjects while simultaneously revealing that the advertisers who placed them proved unable to properly exercise their authority.

In the first, John Stewart alerted readers that his wife, Mary, “has refused my Bed and Board, and in many other respects behaved herself very indecently.”  Stewart did not provide further details about those incidents; to do so would have embarrassed him and damaged his reputation even more than placing an advertisement that deployed formulaic language about a wife who did not exercise proper deference to her husband.  Stewart may very well have preferred not to make his marital discord even more widely known in the public prints, but he needed a mechanism to prevent his recalcitrant wife from incurring debts on his account.

In the other, John McClister described “a Negroe Man, named SAM” who made his escape at the beginning of the month.  McClister warned that “All Masters of Vessels are forbid to carry [Sam] off.”  He also offered a reward to “Whoever takes up said Negroe, and secures him, so that his Master may have him again.”  Sam apparently disagreed that McClister was indeed his master.  In an age when colonists regularly denounced their figurative enslavement by Parliament, Sam refused to allow McClister to hold him in literal bondage any longer.

Both Mary Stewart and Sam deviated from the attitudes and behavior expected of them due to their subordinate status in colonial society.  As a woman and an enslaved man, respectively, they were expected to submit to the men who claimed dominion over them.  Yet Mary and Sam had other ideas.  John Stewart and Jon McClister cast them as the offenders in advertisements in the Providence Gazette, yet those notices did not reflect well on the advertisers either.  Stewart and McClister attempted to regain their authority, but in doing so they first had to publicly acknowledge that they had not been able to maintain it.