September 15

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

Providence Gazette (September 15, 1770).

“The extraordinary Forwardness of the College Edifice.”

To make possible the move from Warren to its permanent home in Providence, Rhode Island College (now Brown University) constructed a new building in 1770.  The college launched a fundraising campaign in Rhode Island and other colonies, including South Carolina and Georgia.  Advertisements in the Providence Gazette kept the community apprised of progress on the building … and reminded “Subscribers,” those who had pledged funds or supplies for the cause, to fulfill their commitments.  In early June, for instance, a committee comprised of Stephen Hopkins, John Jenckes, and John Brown placed an advertisement calling on “ALL Persons who have undertaken to supply any of the Timber for the COLLEGE” to deliver it as soon as possible since work on the foundation was nearing completion.

A new advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette in the middle of September.  It provided an update about the building, using it as an occasion to remind subscribers of their obligations.  On behalf of the “Corporation of the COLLEGE in this Colony,” the notice trumpeted “the extraordinary Forwardness of the College Edifice” that had taken shape over the summer months.  What had been merely a foundation a few months earlier now had “Timber for the fourth Floor” in place.  Such progress meant that the college had incurred expenses.  Accordingly, the advertisement called on “the several Subscribers [to] immediately pay their Subscriptions to the Treasurer of the Corporation, or the Committee for carrying on the Building.”

This notice was part of the continued fundraising efforts of Rhode Island College, but it also served as a news item that kept readers of the Providence Gazette updated about the progress of the building.  Those who resided in town might have been aware of the status of the building based on their own observations as they went about their daily business, but others who lived elsewhere did not witness the various stages of erecting the building.  Fundraising advertisements aimed at subscribers helped keep the entire community informed.

September 8

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

Providence Gazette (September 8, 1770).

An Advertisement to be inserted three Weeks successively in the Providence Gazette, in the Newport Mercury, in one of the Boston, and in one of the New-York News-Papers.”

The misfortune of others generated advertising revenue for John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, and other newspaper printers in the 1770s.  Consider the September 8, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  It featured six advertisements concerning insolvent debtors placed by Henry Ward, secretary of Rhode Island’s General Assembly.

Those notices reiterated formulaic language.  Each named a colonist and his place of residence, stating that he “preferred a Petition unto the General Assembly … representing that he is an insolvent Debtor, and praying that he may the receive the Benefit of an Act passed in June, 1756, intituled, ‘An Act for the Relief of insolvent Debtors.’”  According to the notice, the General Assembly deferred consideration of the petition until the next session, but also specified that “his creditors should be notified” via newspaper advertisements.  On behalf of the General Assembly, Ward invited those creditors to attend the next session and “there to shew Cause, if any they  have, why the said Petition should not be granted.”

Four of these notices called for such advertisements to appear in the Providence Gazette and the Newport Mercury, the two newspapers published in Rhode Island in 1770.  The two other notices each cast a wider net.  One added “one of the New-York News-Papers” and the other added “one of the Boston, and … one of the New-York News-Papers.”  All six called for the advertisements to run “three Weeks successively” in each newspaper.

Carter solicited advertisements for the Providence Gazette in the colophon at the bottom of the final page of every issue.  He may have been especially grateful for these notices in early September since he had few others to insert and he continued to run his own notice calling on “ALL Persons indebted to the Printer” to settle accounts or face legal action.  Assuming that he could depend on the General Assembly to pay for these advertisements in a timely manner, they might have been a windfall for Carter.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 1, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”

On the first day of September in 1770, Benjamin Bowen and Benjamin Stelle advertised “MEDICINES, A full and general Assortment, Chymical and Galenical,” in the Providence Gazette.  They informed prospective customers that they could purchase these medicines “at the well-known Apothecary’s Shop just below the Church, at the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”  In case that shop was not as familiar to readers as Bowen and Stelle suggested it might be, they named the sign that adorned it.  That landmark identified the exact location to acquire “the best of MEDICINES” and “CHOCOLATE, by the Pound, Box, or Hundred Weight.”

Newspaper advertisements placed by entrepreneurs like Bowen and Stelle testify to the visual landscape that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of towns and cities in eighteenth-century America.  In addition to the “Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar,” that same issue of the Providence Gazette included directions to John Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeares Head.”  Not all advertisers always included their shop signs in their notices.  Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement for gun powder and shot that did not make reference to the “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”  On other occasions, however, they were just as likely to include the sign without their name, so familiar had it become in Providence.

Very few eighteenth-century shop signs survived into the twenty-first century.  Evidence that the “Unicorn and Mortar,” “Shakespeares Head,” and the “Golden Eagle” once marked places of commercial activity and aided colonists in navigating the streets of Providence and other places comes from newspaper advertisements and other documents from the period.  Any catalog of such signs draws heavily from advertisements since colonists so often referenced them in their notices.  Even those who did not have shop signs of their own listed their locations in relation to nearby signs, suggesting the extent that shop signs helped colonists make sense of their surroundings and navigate the streets of towns and cities.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:23:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (August 23, 1770).

“Two Negro Men, supposed to have gone off in Company.”

Two Black men, known to their enslavers as Boston and Newport, liberated themselves in the summer of 1770.  They escaped from Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainfield, Connecticut, during the night of August 8.  Coit and Kinsman, in turn, immediately set about placing newspaper advertisements describing Boston and Newport and offering rewards in hopes of enlisting other colonists in capturing the Black men and returning them to enslavement.  Unlike most enslavers who placed such advertisements in a single newspaper or multiple newspapers in a single city, Coit and Kinsman broadened the scope of their surveillance and recovery efforts by inserting advertisements in five newspapers published in five cities and towns in four colonies.  In addition to the reward they offered, they made an investment in advertisements that ran in Hartford’s Connecticut Courant, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, the New-London Gazette, the New-York Journal, and the Providence Gazette.

Although similar, these advertisements were not identical.  The variations tell a more complete story of the escape devised by Boston and Newport.  Consider the notice that ran in the New-London Gazette.  Dated August 9 (first appearing in the August 10 edition) and signed by Coit, it featured Boston only, describing him as “a stout, thick-set fellow, of middling stature, about 30 years old, very black.”  It was the only advertisement that included a visual image, a crude woodcut of a Black person in motion, wearing a grass skirt and carrying a staff, an “R” for runaway on the chest.  Another advertisement dated August 9 ran in the New-York Journal, but that one included the descriptions of both Boston and Newport.  It did not appear until August 23, likely due to the time it took for the copy to arrive in the printing office in New York from Plainfield.  An undated advertisement with almost identical copy also ran in the Providence Gazette for the first time on August 18, likely dispatched to the printing office at the same time as the one sent to New York.  Coit and Kinsman both signed it.  They noted in the final paragraph that “Said Negroes have Passes, and if apprehended, ‘tis requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters.”  Quite likely Coit sent the copy for his advertisement concerning Boston to the New-London Gazette, the newspaper closest to Plainfield, prior to discovering that Newport liberated himself from Kinsman.  When the enslavers realized that Boston and Newport liberated themselves on the same night, they collaborated on new advertisements with a narrative updated from what ran in the New-London Gazette.  The new version stated that Boston and Newport were suspected “to have gone off in Company,” a conspiracy to free themselves.  Determining that they had passes may have caused Coit and Kinsman to widen the scope of their efforts by publishing in multiple newspapers in New England and New York, realizing that the passes increased the mobility and chances of escape for Boston and Newport.

Two other advertisements, those that ran in the Connecticut Courant and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, had identical copy.  They included short descriptions of Boston and Newport, signed by Coit and Kinsman.  In a nota bene, they declared, “It is suspected said Negroes have got a forg’d Pass.”  These advertisements were both dated August 10.  The notice in the Hartford newspaper first appeared on August 13 and in the Boston newspaper on August 16.  As the enslavers fretted about Boston and Newport having better prospects for making good on their escape thanks to the passes, they likely determined that they needed to place notices in additional newspapers.  Doing so amounted to an effort to recruit more colonists to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine whether they might be Boston or Newport.

Advertisements for enslaved men and women who liberated themselves appeared in American newspapers just about every day in the era of the American Revolution.  The advertisements concerning Boston and Newport were not unique in their content or purpose.  What made them extraordinary was the geographic scope of the newspapers in which they appeared and the effort and expense undertaken by the enslavers Coit and Kinsman.  They marshalled the power of the press across a vast region in their attempt to return Boston and Newport to bondage.

August 25

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

Aug 25 - 8:25:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 25, 1770).

“ALL Persons indebted to the Printer hereof … are AGAIN requested to settle their respective Balances.”

In 1770, every issue of the Providence Gazette concluded with a colophon that informed readers that the newspaper was “Printed by JOHN CARTER, at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeares Head; where Subscriptions, Advertisements, Articles, and Letters of Intelligence, &c. are received.”  Like any other printer, Carter needed both subscribers and advertisers to make his newspaper a viable enterprise.  Subscribers constituted the foundation, but for many printers the real money was in advertising.  Neither the number of subscribers nor the number of advertisers mattered much, however, if they did not pay their bills.

Colonial printers frequently found it necessary to run notices calling on their customers to pay their debts.  Carter inserted such a notice into the August 25 edition of the Providence Gazette.  He proclaimed, “ALL Persons indebted to the Printer hereof, either for the Gazette, Advertisements, or in any other Manner, are AGAIN requested to settle their respective Balances, that he may be enabled to discharge his own Contracts.”  That “AGAIN” appeared in capital letters communicated Carter’s exasperation, which he further underscored in the process of threatening legal again.  “Those who pay as little Regard to this as they have done to many and repeated Notices of a like Nature,” he warned, “cannot reasonably expect any further Indulgence.”  He considered taking his customers to court “disagreeable” and a last resort, but something he was “compelled” to do under the circumstances.  Having taken a strident tone throughout the notice, Carter attempted to conclude on a positive note.  “[W]hile the Printer justly complains of those who neglect their Arrearages,” he declared, “he cannot but return his grateful Thanks to such Gentlemen as have paid him with Honour and Punctuality.”  In thanking his customers who paid their bills, he also launched an implicit critique of those who had not.

Such notices were a standard feature of colonial newspapers.  Like other entrepreneurs, printers extended credit to their customers but sometimes found themselves overextended or their customers too slow in settling accounts.  For merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others, placing such notices represented an additional cost of doing business.  Newspaper printers, on the other hand, did not incur additional expenses when running such advertisements.

August 18

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

Aug 18 - 8:18:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 18, 1770).

“Said Negroes are supposed to have Passes.”

In eighteenth-century newspapers, advertisements often served as a supplemental source of news.  Paid notices delivered information about current events that editors did not necessarily select for inclusion among the news articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper.  Advertisements about “runaways,” enslaved people who liberated themselves, fit into this category of paid notices that delivered the news.

Consider an advertisement concerning “two Negro Men,” Boston and Newport, “supposed to have gone off in Company” with each other that ran in the August 18 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  The enslavers who placed the advertisement, Isaac Coit and Robert Kinsman of Plainsfield, Connecticut, provided lengthy descriptions of Boston, “a thick-set, well-built Fellow, of a middle Stature, about 30 Years of Age very black,” and Newport, “a well-built Fellow, of a lesser Size than the former, and not so clear a Black, about 24 Years of Age.”  In addition to these physical descriptions, Coit and Kinsman listed all of the clothing that Boston and Newport took with them, hoping that “a Snuff-coloured Velvet Jacket, lined with Calimanco, having Horn Buttons nearly of the same Colour” would help vigilant colonists recognize Boston or that “a Pair of Brown Fustian Breeches” would aid in identifying Newport.  The enslavers also suspected that Boston and Newport “have Passes,” though they did not elaborate on how the enslaved men had acquired those passes, whether they were literate enough to forge passes for themselves or if an accomplice provided them.  Coit and Kinsman may not have known; they “requested the Passes may be secured for the Benefit of their Masters,” perhaps in hopes of examining them to determine their origins and prevent Boston, Newport, and other enslaved people from making use of other passes in subsequent attempts to liberate themselves.

Placed for the purpose of capturing Boston and Newport in order to return them to bondage, this advertisement operated as a news report that supplemented the other contents of the Providence Gazette.  As readers perused the paid notices in the August 18, 1770, edition, they learned of impoverished colonists seeking “the Benefit of an Act … for the Relief of insolvent Debtors,” a burglary in Middletown, Connecticut, a variety of goods “STOPPED” because they were “Supposed to have been stolen,” and the efforts of Boston and Newport to seize their own liberty.  Since printers often focused on reprinting news from faraway places, local news appeared among the advertisements.

August 4

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

Aug 4 - 8:4:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 4, 1770).

“A THEFT.”

The August 4, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette included advertisements that promoted consumers goods and services for sale, but it also featured several notices that indicated some colonists resorted to alternate means of participating in the consumer revolution.  Purchasing new and secondhand items was not the only means of acquiring goods in eighteenth-century America.

In one such advertisement, Jonathan Farman announced “A THEFT” in the headline.  He went on to list the various items stolen from him in Newport, including “one Pair of blue Yarn Stockings” and “a red and white woollen Jacket, without Sleeves.”  His wallet also included notes and papers that he wished to recover.  Farman provided a brief description of the thief, “a Mulatto Fellow,” that was so general as to focus suspicion on any young, light-skinned Black man that readers encountered.

In another advertisement, Seth Wetmore of Middletown, Connecticut, commenced with a headline that promised a “Twenty-One Dollar Reward.”  His house had been “broke open … by some Person or Persons unknown” in the middle of the night a month earlier.  The culprits made off with “one black double Sattin Cloak, a full Suit of black Paduasoy (Womens Cloaths, large) a black Taffety Quilt and Apron, a light colored Chintz Gown, four Yards of double-folded white Holland, six Yards of whitened Tow-Cloth, three or four Pocket Handkerchiefs, not made up, a Woman’s Shift, and sundry other Things.”  Wetmore conjected that “the Felons” who stole these items had escaped from the New Haven jail the previous items.  He identified John Galloway and John Armstrong, noting that James Burne was an accomplice.  These men may not have desired to possess the stolen items for themselves but instead intended to fence them or sell them for cash to further aid in their flight from the law.

That seemed to have been the case with several items that Ezekiel Burr declared that he had “STOPPED” or confiscated in another advertisement.  When offered “one Woman’s Apron, one Pair of Womens Shoes, and a Remnant of fine Holland” cloth for sale, he suspected that those items “have been stolen,” seized them, and placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette in hopes that the rightful owner would reclaim them.

This trio of advertisements told a different story of participation in the consumer revolution than many of the other advertisements that promoted goods and services in eighteenth-century America.  Rather than listing goods for sale by merchants and shopkeepers or up for bid at auctions and estate sales, they described the theft, burglary, and fencing that were part of what Serena Zabin has described as an “informal economy” in the colonies.

July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 28, 1770).

“JOSEPH AND Wm. RUSSELL.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell were among Providence’s mercantile elite in the decade prior to the American Revolution.  They conducted business at a shop marked by the Sign of the Golden Eagle, a device that became inextricably associated with the Russells.  Their name and the sign were interchangeable in advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette.  Sometimes their notices included their names and the sign, sometimes just their names, and sometimes just the sign.  When advertisements included just their names, readers knew that they could find the Russells at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.  When advertisements directed readers to the Sign of the Golden Eagle, they knew that they would be dealing with the Russells.  No matter which configuration appeared in their advertisements, the Russells’ use of the public prints to promote their various enterprises enhanced and contributed to their visibility as prominent merchants.

They achieved that visibility with a variety of novel approaches to advertising, including full-page advertisements and multiple advertisements in a single issue.  In November 1766, they published what may have been the first full-page advertisement for consumer goods in an American newspaper.  (This excludes book catalogs that printer-booksellers inserted into their own newspapers, taking advantage of their access to the press.)  In addition, placing multiple advertisements per issue helped keep their names in the public eye, a strategy adopted by a small number of advertisers in the largest port cities.  Consider the July 28, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette.  It featured fourteen paid notices and a short advertisement for blanks inserted by the printer.  Of those fourteen advertisements, the Russells placed two, one on each page that had advertisements.  One of them presented various commodities for sale, while the other offered cash in exchange for potash and salts.  The Russells certainly were not the only American entrepreneurs to use the strategy of drawing readers’ attention to their names multiple times in a single issue of a newspaper, but they were the only ones who did so regularly in the Providence Gazette, a publication that tended to run fewer advertisements than its counterparts in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.  As a result, their advertisements were all the more noticeable because they competed with fewer others for attention.

July 21

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

Jul 21 - 7:21:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 21, 1770).

“Some Negroes likewise to be sold.”

For several weeks in the summer of 1770, Henry Paget took to the pagers of the Providence Gazette to advertise several properties for sale in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.  Those properties included a farm in Smithfield, Rhode Island, a “Lot of very good Land” near Ware, Massachusetts, and a house near Reading, Connecticut.  He also offered for sale his “Dwelling-House” with “Shops and a good Store below” in Providence, promoting its prime location “near the Great Bridge, and handy to the College.”  Yet Paget’s notice was not merely a real estate advertisement.

At the conclusion of the advertisement, Paget inserted two additional lines indicating that he also sought to sell enslaved people:  “Some Negroes likewise to be sold.  For further Particulars enquire of said Paget.”  He did not provide further details.  He did not state how many enslaved people he intended to sell.  He did not say how many were men or women or children.  He did not list any ages.  He did not report on the skills any of them possessed.  Other advertisements sometimes included those “Particulars,” but many did not.

Eighteenth-century newspapers, including those published in New England, frequently carried advertisements that casually mentioned enslaved people for sale.  In many instances, such sales were not the primary purpose of the notices.  Instead, such sales appeared as postscripts to advertisements placed for other reasons, such as Paget’s real estate notice, or enslaved people were included alongside various commodities, treating them as though they were nothing more than commodities themselves.  Rather than focusing exclusively on enslaved people, many advertisements made casual reference to enslaved people, integrating the buying and selling of men, women, and children into other daily activities and commercial transactions.

At a glance, Paget’s advertisement does not appear to be an advertisement offering enslaved people for sale.  The headline, “His FARM,” suggests that it was a real estate notice.  That might make it easy for modern readers to overlook those final two lines unless they read carefully.  For readers of the Providence Gazette in 1770, however, enslavement was part of the fabric of everyday life.  Advertisements that hint at “Some Negroes likewise to be sold” only begin to tell much more extensive stories of enslavement in colonial and revolutionary New England.

July 14

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

Jul 14 - 7:14:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 14, 1770).

“All Cheap for Cash or Melasses.”

On July 14, 1770, John Fitton advertised “NEW-made Poughkeepsie Flour, by the Quantity and Barrel, and a few Barrels of Long-Island Pork” in the Providence Gazette.  Like most eighteenth-century purveyors of goods and services, he did not indicate prices in his advertisement, though he did assert that he sold these items “cheap.”  Fitton’s advertisement appeared next to the “PRICES CURRENT in PROVIDENCE,” a list of the going rates for a variety of popular commodities.  This gave prospective buyers a sense of what they could expect to pay Fitton for flour and pork.  According to the prices current, flour traded at sixteen shillings and six pence “By the Hundred Weight” and pork at seventy-two shillings “By the Barrel.”  If Fitton’s prices deviated too far above those listed in the prices current, buyers knew to look elsewhere to find better deals.  They could also assess the bargains he offered if his “cheap” prices fell below the rates reported in the prices current.  Fitton also informed prospective buyers that he accepted “Cash or Melasses” in payment.  The prices current included an entry for molasses, listing that commodity at one shilling and six pence per gallon.  Anyone with molasses to trade could use the prices current to calculate that a hundredweight of flour was worth eleven gallons of molasses and a barrel of pork was worth forty-eight gallons of molasses.  The prices current established baselines for all sorts of exchanges in the Providence marketplace.

Like most eighteenth-century newspaper printers, John Carter usually placed the prices current adjacent to advertisements, facilitating the process of using one to inform the other.  This required active reading on the part of colonists, but their efforts allowed them to use different items in the newspaper to craft a more complete portrait of the commercial landscape.  Carter’s curation of the content of the Providence Gazette provided readers with useful materials beyond news items that summarized current events near and far.