July 25

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

Jul 25 - 7:25:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 25, 1767).

“Advertisements omitted this Week, for want of Room, will be inserted in our next.”

Sarah Goddard and Company, the publishers of the Providence Gazette, apparently received more advertisements than space permitted them to insert in the July 25, 1767, edition. As a result, they included a notice frequently seen in rival newspapers in other cities: “Advertisement omitted this Week, for want of Room, will be inserted in our next.” This signaled to readers that they would discover new material in the next issue, but it also communicated to advertisers not to fret when they did not spot their notice in the current issue.

Space was indeed at a premium in that edition of the Providence Gazette. Advertising filled nearly five of the twelve columns (including the entire final page), which was quite a change from the scarcity of advertising that plagued Goddard and Company the previous winter. The printers no longer resorted to filling the last page with their own advertisements (although one short notice did inform readers that “THE new Digest of the LAWS of this Colony, printed in One Volume, are to be sold at the Printing-Office in Providence”). Instead, they printed advertisements of various sorts, including legal notices, real estate pitches, and one seeking the capture and return of “a Negro Man named Caesar.” The majority of advertisements, however, promoted consumer goods and services. William Logan announced that he “now carries on the Painting Business in all its Branches.” Thomas Sabin advertised his stagecoach service to Boston (also advertised in Boston’s newspapers) and Ebenezer Webb advertised his “Passage-Boat” between New London and Long Island (also advertised in the New-London Gazette). Several merchants and shopkeepers – Black and Stewart, William Brown, James Green, John Mathewson, Philip Potter, Benjamin West – sought to attract customers.

What accounted for this spirit of competition in the public prints that had been absent during the winter months? Why did Goddard and Company now have more advertisements than they squeeze into the weekly issue of the Providence Gazette? Did other marketing efforts beget more advertising? In recent weeks, several advertisers made bolder claims (such as James Green proclaiming that “he will sell as cheap as can be bought in any Shop in this Town, or an of the neighbouring Governments”), became rancorous (such as Black and Stewart lamenting “the Knavery of some, and the Collusion of others” to their detriment), and singled out specific competitors (such as Philip Potter pledging “he will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers”).   A combination of increasingly vocal marketing efforts in the pages of the local newspaper and concurrent events revived the advertising section of the Providence Gazette in the summer of 1767.

July 18

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

Jul 18 - 7:18:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 18, 1767).

“He will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers.”

Philip Potter placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette to announce that “he has just opened a Shop, and received a great Variety of fashionable English and India Goods.” In the process of promoting his own wares, Potter made reference to other shopkeepers in the city.

To help potential customers find his shop, Potter indicated that it was located “AT THE WEST END OF THE GREAT BRIDGE, AND NEAR Messrs. BLACK and STEWART.” While this may have called attention to a competitor (who happened to advertise on the following page of the same issue), the public’s familiarity with Black and Stewart and where they kept shop may have outweighed any risk of giving them free publicity. After all, Potter’s new shop would fail if customers could not find it, making it necessary to refer to prominent landmarks in an era before standardized street numbers.

Potter also mentioned two shopkeepers in North Providence, proclaiming that “he will sell as Cheap as the Messrs. Thurbers, or any other Person in this Town.” Merchants and shopkeepers commonly promised potential customers that they offered the best prices, but rarely did they single out specific competitors for special notice. For their part, Benjamin and Edward Thurber had previously advertised that their prices were “as low as any Person in this or the neighboring Towns, or in North-America.” They made a bold claim to the lowest prices on the continent, but they did not name any of their competitors. Did Potter refer to them because they had indeed established a reputation among consumers for particularly low prices? In promoting his own shop, did he also acknowledge the Thurbers as the shopkeepers most likely to offer great deals for shoppers? Did Potter give voice to a general sentiment among Providence residents? If the Thurbers were indeed known to offer the lowest prices, then Potter used their reputation to his own advantage, provided that he actually matched their prices when customers visited his shop.

Most local readers of the Providence Gazette would have been familiar with the commercial landscape of their city. Rather than pretend that his competitors did not exist, Potter mobilized general knowledge about their businesses to attract customers to his own shop.

July 11

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

Jul 11 - 7:11:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 11, 1767).

“They have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.”

No publicity is bad publicity. That may have been the sentiment that motivated Black and Stewart when they placed this advertisement in the Providence Gazette. As part of their attempt to market tea, rum, molasses, and sugar, the partners aired their dirty laundry in the public prints.

Black and Stewart did not go into the particulars of what had transpired, but they did inform readers “that through the Knavery of some, and Collusion of others, they have been unjustly detained out of a Sum of Money, greatly to their Disadvantage.” Perhaps in a town the size of Providence it was not necessary to go into more detail. Black and Stewart may have been referencing a tale that local readers already knew, gossip that had already spread. They may have felt that acknowledging their difficulties presented the better path than trying to pretend that the unfortunate situation did not exist.

At the same time, the partners also attempted to generate sympathy for their plight. Even if readers did not know the specifics, they could still be moved that Black and Stewart “stand in Need of Cash.” The shopkeepers first emphasized their own needs and how they would benefit from commercial transactions, but then they pivoted to stress the benefits accrued to potential customers who chose to patronize their business. They noted that competitors “sell some Goods below Prime Cost” (perhaps as what would be called loss leaders today), prompting Black and Stewart to offer discounted prices on several popular items. To aid potential customers in comparison shopping, they listed prices for tea, rum, molasses, and sugar. They also issued a guarantee on the tea, which was “warranted good” but would be “taken back and the Money returned” if customers were not satisfied. If they could get customers though the door to purchase these items, some might also make selections from among the “Variety of English and West-India Goods” they also stocked.

Some readers may have found the story of Black and Stewart’s difficulties untoward, but the shopkeepers gambled that they could mobilize their tale of woe to attract customers. They portrayed their disappointments in business as opportunities for customers to benefit from lower prices. The marketplace could be cruel, but this afforded consumers victories on occasion. Black and Stewart invited potential customers to take advantage of their misfortunes, giving unspoken assurances that they could trust the deals were real since the shopkeepers were in such dire straits.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 4, 1767).

“RAN away … a Negro Man named Caesar.

Today citizens of the United States commemorate the 241st anniversary of their independence. To mark that occasion, I have selected an advertisement that tells the story of one man’s efforts to secure his own freedom during the era of the imperial crisis that gave way to the Revolution.

Caesar (almost certainly not the name bestowed on him by his parents) was “a Negro Man” enslaved to Ebenezer Sweet in North Kingston, Rhode Island. Near the beginning of June 1767, he ran away from his master. Nearly a month later he still had not been captured and returned, despite the generous reward advertised in the Providence Gazette.

Why did Sweet offer “Eight Dollars, and all reasonable Charges” (in other words, any expenses incurred in capturing and transporting the fugitive) for this particular slave? In part, he likely wished to recover some of the consumer goods Caesar carried away with him, including “a Pair of Silver Shoe Buckles” and “almost a new Beaverrit Hat.” Beyond those items, Caesar was an especially valuable slave because of the skills he possessed. Not only could he read and write, he was also a skilled artisan. Sweet acknowledged that Caesar was “by Trade a Blacksmith,” although he “principally follows Anchor-making.” This constellation of skills would have made Caesar particularly valuable to Sweet, especially since he could have hired out his services for much more than a common laborer.

Yet Caesar had other ideas. The advertisement does not indicate how well he could read. Perhaps he was literate enough to read the Providence Gazette and other newspapers that reported on recent efforts by Parliament to “enslave” the colonies by charging stamp duties and quartering troops. Even if he did not read the newspapers, he likely overheard discussions and witnessed protests against Parliament’s schemes. Like many other slaves in the 1760s through the 1780s, Caesar could have applied the rhetoric of liberty to his own situation and sought to change it by taking action on his own.

Yet the imperial crisis and the Revolution were not absolutely necessary for Caesar or any other slaves to chafe at their subjugation. They did not need colonists to teach them the value of freedom. Advertisements for runaways populated the pages of colonial newspapers long before the rupture with Great Britain as thousands of enslaved men and women determined on their own that they wanted more than to be held in bondage.

As celebrations of Independence Day take place, remember that the founding generation consisted of many, many more people than just the prominent political and military leaders whose names have been memorialized for nearly a quarter millennium. “A Negro Man named Caesar” was also a member of the founding generation. Using the means available to him, he waged his own campaign for freedom and liberty.

June 27

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

Jun 27 - 6:27:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 27, 1767).

“GOODS, consisting of every article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy advertisements, and many others, not usually imported.”

James Green sold a variety of imported goods at his shop in Providence. For several weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1767 he placed a notice that “he hath just received a large, compleat and fashionable assortment of English and India piece GOODS, consisting of every article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy advertisements, and many others, not usually imported.” This claim caught my attention because it so closely replicated an advertisement placed by Gilbert Deblois in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette at about the same time. Deblois carried “A complete fashionable Assortment of English & India Piece GOODS, consisting of every Article that has been mentioned in the most lengthy Advertisements, and many others not usually imported.” Green eliminated the italics that consistently appeared in Deblois’s advertisements in all three Boston newspapers, but he otherwise adopted the same language to make a fairly unique appeal.

Many eighteenth-century advertisements included formulaic phrases, such as “compleat and fashionable assortment,” but appropriation of entire sentences that expressed distinctive marketing efforts was not common. Shopkeepers occasionally stated that they carried too much merchandise to list all of it in an advertisement, but rarely did they claim to carry goods “not usually imported.” Green, whose advertisement first appeared in the Providence Gazette on May 23, apparently lifted copy from Deblois’s notice, probably hoping that it would have the same effect of intriguing potential customers and inciting curiosity about what might be on the shelves in his shop. He may have believed that he could get away with treating this marketing strategy as his own if he was the first and only shopkeeper in Providence to adopt it.

Other scholars have demonstrated that news flowed through networks of printers who liberally borrowed news items from other newspapers, reprinting them word for word, sometimes with attribution and other times without. This advertisement suggests that sometimes advertisers engaged in the same practices, keeping their eyes open for innovative marketing appeals formulated by their counterparts in other cities and adopting them as their own.

June 13

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

Jun 13 - 6:13:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 13, 1767).

“The assortment being too large for an advertisement, the particulars are omitted.”

Shopkeepers, including Gideon Young of Providence, frequently promoted the “compleat and full assortment of European and India Goods” they imported, stocked, and sold to colonial consumers. Most emphasized consumer choice, enticing potential customers with visions of selecting textiles and housewares that appealed to their own tastes and fit their budgets. A “compleat and full assortment” of merchandise meant that customers experienced significant independence when they went shopping, rather than being expected to accept whatever happened to be on the shelves. Such freedom empowered colonial consumers; advertisers hoped this would encourage them to make more purchases as they explored and considered all the possibilities before determining which goods to buy.

Many advertisers set that process in motion by inserting lengthy lists of their inventory in their commercial notices, prompting potential customers to imagine possessing their merchandise – wearing particular fabrics and adornments or using and displaying specific housewares – even if they had not yet considered visiting any shops. Advertisers sought to stimulate demand by introducing readers to items that they might not have previously even realized that they desired. Eighteenth-century shopkeepers considered enumerating dozens or even hundreds of items in a list-style advertisement one effective way of achieving that goal.

Gideon Young, however, took a different approach as he encouraged potential customers to think about his “compleat and full assortment of European and India Goods.” He did not list any specific items, but instead stated, “The assortment being too large for an advertisement, the particulars are omitted.—Therefore I invite my good old customers and others, to call at my shop.” Such an invitation may have been just as powerful as a list of specific goods. It created a sense of mystery and anticipation by prompting readers to imagine the size of Young’s inventory and the variety of his goods that prevented him from offering a preview in the newspaper. It evoked curiosity and encouraged window shopping that might lead to actual purchases when readers came to investigate the “complete and full assortment” of merchandise on their own.

Young may have been making a virtue of a necessity when he adopted this sort of appeal. While this marketing strategy occupied less space on the page and presumably incurred lower costs, this did not necessarily make it less effective than posting a list-style advertisement. Instead, Young’s description of his merchandise – “the best of its kind, well chosen, and suitable for the season” – was designed to convince potential customers to visit his examine his wares rather than visit shops where the proprietors had not exercised so much care in selecting which goods to stock.

June 6

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

Jun 6 - 6:6:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 6, 1767).

Books, Pamphlets, and Blanks of all Sorts, &c. &c.”

For several weeks in the winter and early spring of 1767 advertising was sparse in the Providence Gazette. Many of the advertisements that did appear were placed by Sarah Goddard and Company, the printers of the newspaper, for goods and services they sold. Others came from associates in the printing trades, including extensive proposals for the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a new publication that William Goddard, Sarah’s son, launched in Philadelphia in January 1767. It seemed as though Goddard and Company struggled to fill the pages of the Providence Gazette, sometimes inserting many of their own advertisements as means of generating sufficient content to fill the pages of each weekly issue.

That changed as summer approached. New advertisers placed commercial notices. Previous advertisers returned to the pages of the Providence Gazette. Advertising comprised about one-third of the contents of the June 6 edition, just as it had the previous week and would again the following week. Goddard and Company did not place any advertisements among those that appeared in the June 6 issue, yet the partnership still managed to inform readers about the services they offered.[1] Indeed, Goddard and Company’s promotional efforts accounted for the first and last items printed in that issue.

On the first page, below a masthead that proclaimed the newspaper carried “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic,” an announcement from the printers appeared at the top of the first column, preceding foreign “advices” from London. In addition to informing readers that the printing office had moved to a new location, the announcement concluded with a list of printed materials Goddard and Company offered for sale: “where may be had Books, Pamphlets, and Blanks of all Sorts, &c. &c.” On the final page, the colophon appeared across the bottom as usual. In addition to providing publication information, it also solicited business for the printers. Goddard and Company accepted subscriptions and advertisements directly associated with the Providence Gazette, but they also did job printing (“all Manner of PRINTING WORK”) to the specifications of clients.

Even as the Providence Gazette gained advertisers in the spring of 1767, the printers controlled the layout of the newspaper. More advertising meant less space for their own notices, which may have been a welcome relief if advertisers paid in a timely manner, yet Goddard and Company continued to devise ways to promote their own goods and services. Their privileged position as operators of the press allowed them to begin and end the June 6 edition with brief marketing messages.

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[1] The masthead lists “SATURDAY, JUNE 7, 1767” as the date for the issue, but that was not possible. In 1767, it could have been published on Saturday, June 6 or Sunday, June 7. Considering that the Providence Gazette was published on Saturdays throughout the rest of the year (and that no newspapers were printed on Sundays anywhere in the colonies), I consider it more likely that June 6 was the correct date. In addition, the printers did not offer any sort of apology for the late appearance of the issue. Goddard and Company regularly inserted notes explaining that the late arrival of the post affected which news appeared, making it likely that they would have also acknowledged publishing an issue a day later than usual. That being said, moving the printing office could have caused a one-day delay in publication, but most of the circumstances suggest that this edition appeared on Saturday, June 6, 1767.