May 23

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

Providence Gazette (May 23, 1772).

“At the Sign of the BOOT, SHOE and SLIPPER.”

Joseph Gifford, a cordwainer, placed an advertisement in the May 23, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette to inform prospective customers that he “NOW works in the Shop of Mr. THOMAS BURKET … on the main Street” and “makes and sells Boots, Half-Boots, Spatterdashes, Half-Spatterdashes, Shoes and Pumps of all Kinds.”  To help clients find the shop, he clarified that “the Sign of the BOOT, SHOE and SLIPPER” marked its location.

Gifford was not the only advertiser who referenced a shop sign in giving directions, though not all of them matched their emblems so closely to their occupations.  Jones and Allen sold “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” at the Sign of the Golden Ball on the west side of the Great Bridge.  Thurber and Cahoon stocked a similar inventory at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes on Constitution Street.  In the North End of Providence, Edward Thurber carried a “fine Assortment of Grocery, Hardware, and Piece GOODS” at the Sign of the Brazen Lion.  One advertisement for a “fine assortment of ENGLISH GOODS” did not name the purveyor of those items or give any directions other than stating that the goods were “At the GOLDEN EAGLE.”  Anyone who resided in Providence for any length of time knew that Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, had a store at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.  Further directions were not necessary.  Even the colophon at the bottom of the final page of the newspaper made reference to a device that marked the location of the printing office.  Subscribers, advertisers, and others could find John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, “at Shakespear’s Head, in King-Street, opposite the Court-House.”

Many more merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others marked their businesses with decorative signs, creating a rich visual landscape of advertising in colonial Providence and other towns.  In many instances, those signs were synonymous with the proprietors of those businesses.  Relatively few signs from the era survive, but newspaper advertisements testify to some of the sights that colonizers saw as they traversed the streets.

May 16

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

Providence Gazette (May 16, 1772).

“They will sell at as cheap a Raste as any Goods … can be purchased in this Town.”

Nathaniel Jacobs advised prospective customers that he stocked a “compleat Assortment of European and East-India GOODS” that he “sold at the lowest Prices” at his shop on the west side of the Great Bridge in Providence.  Other merchants and shopkeepers who also placed notices in the May 16, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette placed even greater emphasis on the bargains they offered.

At their shop at the Sign of the Elephant, for instance, Tillinghast and Holroyd stocked a “Variety [of] ARTICLES … which they will sell at as cheap a Rate as any Goods, of the same Quality, can be purchased in this Town.”  In other words, their competitors did not have lower prices.  To underscore the point, they made an additional appeal to female consumers.  “The Ladies are especially informed,” Tillinghast and Holroyd declared, “that a Part of their Assortment consists of Silks for Gowns, Cloaks, &c. Gauzes, Lawns, &c. for Aprons, &c. which will be sold at the lowest Prices.”  According to the advertisement, women could acquire these goods without paying extravagant prices.

Jones and Allen also emphasized low prices in their lengthy notice that listed scores of “ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS” recently imported.  The headline for their advertisement proclaimed, “The greatest Pennyworths,” alerting prospective customers to bargain prices.  Not considering that sufficient to entice customers into their shop at the Sign of the Golden Ball, they concluded with a note that they “think it needless to say any thing more to the public, than that they deal for ready money, and are determined to be undersold by no retailer in Providence.”  Jones and Allen encouraged comparison shopping, confident that customers would ultimately buy their goods.

Thurber and Cahoon made similar promises concerning their “compleat Assortment of English and India GOODS” at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes.  They suggested that they already had a reputation for good deals at their store, stating that they were “determined to sell at their usual low Prices.”  In addition, they challenged consumers to make their own assessments, confiding that they “doubt not but all, who will call and examine for themselves, will be convinced [their prices] are as low, if not lower, than are sold by any Person, or Persons, whatever.”  Their advertisement advanced yet another claim to setting the best prices in town.

Tillinghast and Holroyd, Jones and Allen, and Thurber and Cahoon did not merely tell prospective customers that they offered low prices.  They did not make offhand appeals to price.  Instead, they crafted short narratives about the bargains at their shops, pledging consumers would not find better deals elsewhere.  They believed that such narratives would entice customers to visit their shops even if they encountered low prices in other stores.

May 9

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

Providence Gazette (May 9, 1772).

“Ladies and Gentlemen … will be used in the most genteel Manner.”

When Richard Mathewson of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, “opened a House … for entertaining Gentlemen,” he placed an advertisement in the April 4, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette.  He also stabled horses and “carries on the Baker’s Business,” offering those “and other Conveniences” for entertaining “in the best Manner.”  One of his competitors, William Arnold, saw in that advertisement an opportunity.  Three weeks later, he began running his own notices that made explicit reference to Mathewson’s advertisement.  “WHEREAS in the Providence Gazette, of April 4,” Arnold declared, “we find an Advertisement setting forth, that Richard Mathewson … will entertain Horses and Men; I therefore, in Compassion to the tender and delicate Constitutions of the fair Sex, have opened the Doors of my House to both Ladies and Gentlemen.”  He pledged that all customers “may depend they will be used in the most genteel Manner” as they enjoyed the amenities at “one of the most convenient Houses, well fitted with Lodgings, and stored with Provisions of the best Kind.”

Only on rare occasions did eighteenth-century advertisers make direct mention of their competitors.  They frequently made generalizations about offering the lowest prices, stocking the most extensive inventory, or providing the best customer service relative to what consumers would find elsewhere in town, but very rarely did they name their competitors or make direct comparisons between their goods and services.  Arnold decided that such a comparison would serve him well in his marketing efforts, distinguishing his public house and inn from the one operated by Mathewson.  In making his business accessible to “the fair Sex,” he implied that he cultivated a more genteel atmosphere than Mathewson managed for “Gentlemen, and their Horses” at his establishment.  Arnold suggested that the presence of “both Ladies and Gentlemen” meant that his customers could expect a more refined environment than they would experience at Mathewson’s “House … for entertaining Gentlemen.”  Taverns and coffeehouses often tended to be masculine homosocial spaces in early America, but Arnold surmised that running an appropriately “genteel” house of entertainment could attract patrons less interested in visiting one that marketed itself as catering primarily to “Gentlemen, and their Horses.”

May 3

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

Providence Gazette (May 2, 1772).

“At the Sign of the GREYHOUND.”

In the spring of 1772, Nathaniel Wheaton advertised a “fine Assortment of Spring and Summer GOODS” that he recently imported to Providence “by the last Vessels from England.”  He pledged to sell these items “cheaper than he has yet done,” promising bargains for prospective customers.  To attract attention to his appeals to consumer choice, that “fine assortment,” and low prices, those low prices, he adorned his advertisement in the Providence Gazette with an image of a dog.  He gave his location as “the Sign of the GREYHOUND, between the Baptist Meeting-House and the Church,” suggesting that the woodcut was intended to depict a greyhound.  Readers may not have recognized the breed at a glance.

Despite the image’s shortcomings, it enhanced Wheaton’s marketing efforts.  It was the only woodcut incorporated into an advertisement in the May 2, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette.  Elsewhere in the issue, only the masthead featured an image.  That almost certainly made readers take note of Wheaton’s advertisement, especially considering that most others consisted of dense paragraphs of text.  In addition, the image contributed to creating a brand for Wheaton, giving his business a visual identity that colonizers encountered in more than one place.  They saw his sign when they traversed the streets of Providence and they glimpsed his advertisements in the Providence Gazette.  Wheaton may have also distributed broadsides, handbills, trade cards, or billheads that also bore an image purported to be a greyhound.

Other advertisers mentioned their shop signs.  Thurber and Cahoon, for instance, announced that they did business at “the Sign of the BUNCH of GRAPES, in CONSTITUTION-STREET.”  Tillinghast and Holroyd ran a store “at the Sign of the ELEPHANT.”  Their advertisements hint at the rich visual culture associated with commerce in urban ports in eighteenth-century America.  For his part, Wheaton expanded that visual culture into the most common media of the era, newspapers, increasing the chances that prospective customers would peruse the copy of his advertisement.  Even if they did not, he gained greater visibility for his shop and name recognition than competitors who did not insert images with into their notices.

April 4

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

Providence Gazette (April 4, 1772).

“They have just opened a large and fine assortment of Spring and Summer Goods.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the most prolific advertisers in the Providence Gazette in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Two of the city’s most prominent merchants, the Russells generated significant advertising revenue for the printers of the Providence Gazette.  They sometimes ran multiple advertisements at once, especially when they received new shipments of imported goods via vessels arriving in port.  Even when the Russells were relatively quiet, they inserted a new advertisement approximately once a month or every six weeks.  In doing so, they maintained their visibility in the public prints much more consistently than their competitors.  That likely contributed to their prominence, both in the Providence and in other towns where the Providence Gazette circulated.

As part of their ongoing advertising campaign, the Russells inserted a new advertisement in the April 4, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette.  It did not include much by way of prologue, sporting a headline that read, “To be Sold by JOSEPH & Wm. RUSSELL,” before listing a variety of goods in two columns.  The Russells apparently marketed items they previously had on hand or else they would have resorted to a convention adopted by many merchants and shopkeepers in their advertisements.  That standard format proclaimed that the advertisers had “just imported” certain goods and named the vessels and captains that transported them across the Atlantic.  Prospective customers could compare that information to the shipping news to determine how recently the merchandise made it to shops and stores.

Lacking such an introduction, the Russells’ advertisement suggested to readers that they had not just received the “Cream coloured plates and mugs,” “Brass kettles,” and “Looking glasses of all sizes.”  The advertisement concluded with a note that the merchants “have just opened a large and fine assortment of Spring and Summer Goods” for those who wished to peruse them, but savvy consumers realized that they would choose from among items imported during a previous season.  If the Russells had new goods recently delivered from England, they would have incorporated that information into their new advertisement.

March 7

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (March 7, 1772).

“Several Negroes to be sold, belonging to said Estate.”

Estate notices regularly ran among the advertisements in the Providence Gazette and other colonial newspapers.  On March 7, 1772, for instance, Deborah Paget and Joseph Olney inserted a notice calling on “ALL Persons who have any Accounts against the Estate of HENRY PAGET, Esq; late of Providence, deceased, … to bring them to us … for Settlement.”  Similarly, they requested that “all those who are in any Manner indebted to said Estate … make immediate Payment” so Paget and Olney “may be enabled to discharge the Debts due from said Estate.”

The notice also included a nota bene that advised, “Several Negroes to be sold, belonging to the said Estate.”  That was not the only mention of enslaved people for sale in that edition of the Providence Gazette.  Another advertisement proclaimed, “TO BE SOLD, FOR no Fault, but for Want of Employ, a stout, likely NEGRO MAN, who understands Farming, and almost all other Kinds of Business.”  No colonizer signed that advertisement.  Instead, it instructed anyone interested in purchasing the enslaved man to “Enquire of the Printer.”  In this instance, John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, not only generated revenue from disseminating the advertisement but also served as a broker in the slave trade.  Throughout the colonies, newspaper printers regularly assumed that dual role.

Elsewhere in the March 7 edition of the Providence Gazette, Carter reprinted an essay that ran in the Essex Gazette two weeks earlier.  It made a case for the colonies united in a “Grand American Commonwealth” to become “an independent state,” noting that “liberty has taken deep root in America, and cannot be eradicated by all the Tories in the universe.”  The author, who adopted the pseudonym “FORESIGHT,” challenged printers to fill the pages of newspapers “with essays against the present tyranny” perpetrated by Britain.  Carter may have believed that he joined that effort by reprinting the essay, but his decision to publish advertisements offering enslaved people for sale and to act as a broker in those transaction demonstrated the juxtaposition of liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution.  Over and over, throughout the colonies, printers promoted the rights of colonizers against the tyranny of Britain while simultaneously perpetuating slavery and the slave trade.  Revenues generated from advertisements offering enslaved people for sale helped fund essays that advocated for the liberties of American colonizers.

February 22

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

Providence Gazette (February 22, 1772).

“He has acquired such an Art in building Chimnies, that he will warrant all he sall hereafter build to carry Smoke in the best Manner.”

Artisans of all sorts often promoted their years of experience when they placed advertisements in American newspapers in the eighteenth century.  Such was the case for Amos Horton, a bricklayer in Providence.  In an advertisement that first ran in the February 15, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette, Horton invoked his “long Experience in the Bricklayer’s Business.”  That “long Experience” prompted him to incorporate an additional marketing strategy into his notice.  Horton offered a guarantee.

The bricklayer proclaimed that he “has acquired such an Art in building Chimnies, that he will warrant all he shall hereafter build to carry Smoke in the best Manner.”  The guarantee, however, came with conditions.  Horton specified that “if any one Chimney in any Stack he shall build after the 15th of February, 1772, fails in carrying Smoke after the best Manner, that then he will deduct out of his Charge for building such Stack, the Value of building such particular Chimney.”  What constituted “carrying Smoke after the best Manner” remained a matter of interpretation, but offering a guarantee of any sort may have helped Horton garner attention.  It likely made prospective clients favorably inclined toward his work before hiring him while also providing reassurances that the bricklayer would address concerns if his chimneys did not meet with their satisfaction.

Furthermore, Horton put his reputation on the line.  After making such a proclamation, published in the public prints on several occasions, he was obligated to honor it.  Not doing so had the potential to damage his reputation and prevent additional clients from hiring him than if he never issued any sort of guarantee at all.  Word-of-mouth critiques of the bricklayer and his chimneys had the potential to outweigh any promises he made in notices that ran in the Providence Gazette.  Adhering to the promise he published in his advertisement became part of his record of customer service.

February 15

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

Providence Gazette (February 15, 1772).

“Choice Bohea Tea, which for Smell and Flavour exceeds almost any ever imported.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell were among the most prominent merchants in Providence in the era of the American Revolution.  The brothers were so successful that in 1772 they built what is now the “earliest extant and most impressive of the cubical, three-story houses that symbolized wealth and social standing in Providence for several generation beginning at the eve of the Revolution,” according to the Providence Preservation Society’s Guide to Providence Architecture.  The building stands at 118 North Main Street (formerly King Street), though its original interiors were removed and installed in several museums a century ago.  In addition, the building “was raised to insert a storefront” in the middle of the nineteenth century, resulting in the original entrance, “taken from the English architectural pattern book Builder’s Compleat Assistant (1750) by Battey Langley,” appearing to adorn the second floor rather than opening onto the street.

The Russells frequently advertised in the Providence Gazette in the 1760s and 1770s.  Perhaps their marketing efforts contributed, at least in part, to their mercantile success.  As they embarked on building their new house in 1772, the brothers advertised a variety of commodities on February 15.  They focused primarily on grocery items in that notice, though in others they promoted a vast array of textile, housewares, hardware, and other goods imported from England.  Among the groceries they offered to consumers, the Russells listed “Nutmegs, Cinnamon, Mace, and Cloves” as well as “Pepper by the Bag” and “Chocolate by the Box.”  They concluded their advertisement with “Choice Bohea Tea.”  Most advertisers did not offer much commentary about that popular commodity, but in this instance the Russells elaborated on what made their tea “Choice” for consumers.  They proclaimed that the “Smell and Flavour exceeds almost any ever imported.”  In conjuring such associations with their tea at the conclusion of their advertisement, the Russells may have incited greater interest in all of the groceries they sold.  Sales of “Choice Bohea Tea” and so many other goods helped finance the house they built in 1772.  The Russells almost certainly enjoyed “Choice Bohea Tea” in the parlor of their new home, partaking in popular social rituals with family and guests.

February 8

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

Providence Gazette (February 8, 1772).

“It would be more for his Advantage to supply the Bellies, rather than the Backs of his Customers.”

Eighteenth-century newspapers often carried references that readers presumably found amusing yet confound modern readers, even historians who have immersed themselves, as much as possible, in the culture of the period.  Such references usually appeared among the news and commentary, but they sometimes found their way into advertisements as well.

That seems to have been the case in an advertisement that Robert Nesbitt ran in the Providence Gazette in January and February 1772.  Nesbitt informed the public that he ran a shop at the location formerly occupied by Benoni Pearce.  Rather than simply state that was the case, he provided a lengthy introduction likely meant to entertain readers.  “BENONI PEARCE,” the shopkeeper proclaimed, “thinking it would be more for his Advantage to supply the Bellies, rather than the Backs of his Customers, has prudently left off Shopkeeping, and applied himself to baking Gingerbread.”  Nesbitt deployed a clever turn of phrase in referring to Pearce’s decision to change occupations from selling textiles and garments to baking bread, though saying that Pearce “prudently” did so may have been a dig at the shopkeeper-turned-baker and his success as a retailer.  Whatever the case, Benoni Pearce and Elijah Bacon announced that they had “opened a BAKE-HOUSE” in the October 27, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, more than a year earlier.  Next came a reference that Nesbitt might have intended to be humorous … or an insult.  He declared that Pearce sold his “best Quality” gingerbread, a rather specific item, “upon advantageous Terms to – himself.”  What initially seemed to be an endorsement using the formulaic language of eighteenth-century advertisements became some sort of joke.  Nesbitt may have meant it as a lighthearted observation that the baked goods that came out of Pearce’s oven were so good that the baker could not resist eating them himself.  If Pearce was known as large man with a good-natured attitude about his size, the comment might have been friendly banter.  On the other hand, Nesbitt may have intended for the entire introduction to mock Pearce.  Perhaps it quickly became apparent that Pearce was not a skilled baker.  In early August, Hope Still McNeal advertised that he “carries on the BAKING BUSINESS … at the Bake House lately occupied by Pearce and Bacon.”  Either Pearce moved to a new location or did not last long in his new occupation.

Nesbitt did inject some jocularity into other portions of his advertisement.  In promoting his “Neat ASSORTMENT of GOODS,” he asserted that they “are good, but he thinks Cash much better; for which Reason he thinks proper to inform the Public, that for a few Spanish milled Dollars (of which he is very fond) they may have any Article.”  He almost certainly did not mean to depict himself as avaricious.  Instead, Nesbitt sought to make clear that he wanted to make deals and offered bargains to his customers for the benefit of all involved.  Saying that he was “very fond” of “Spanish milled Dollars” may have been a clever way of telling customers that he preferred cash rather than extending credit.  He made his wares affordable, selling them “almost at their own Price” without significantly marking up what he had paid.  That meant some really good deals; Nesbitt claimed that he set prices “some Twenty per Cent. lower than they are generally sold for in Great-Britain.”

Nesbitt incorporated humor into his advertisement for imported goods.  Although it likely resonated with readers at the time, not all of the shopkeeper’s quips translate well for modern readers.  All the same, he deployed humor, a staple of modern advertising, to an extent not present in most eighteenth-century advertisements.

February 1

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

Providence Gazette (February 1, 1772).

“He does not receive a Sufficiency from his Subscribers to defray even the Expence of Paper on which the Gazette is printed.”

It was a familiar refrain.  John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, called on subscribers to pay their bills, echoing notices that printers throughout the colonies regularly inserted in their own newspapers.  He appealed to reason, but also threatened legal action.  In the process, he provided an overview of his persistent attempts to convince subscribers to settle their accounts.

Carter reported that the “Ninth of November closed the Year with most of the Subscribers to this Gazette.”  That milestone made it a good time to make payments, but nearly three months later “Numbers of them are now greatly in Arrear.”  Carter had already attempted to collect, noting that he “repeatedly called on” subscribers “by Advertisements,” but they “still neglect settling their Accounts, to the great Disadvantage of the Printer.”  He suggested that continuing to publish the Providence Gazette depended on subscribers paying what they owed.  So many of them were so delinquent that Carter claimed that he “does not receive a Sufficiency from his Subscribers to defray even the Expence of Paper on which the Gazette is printed.”  Subscriptions, however, were not the only source of revenue for Carter or any other printer.  Advertising also generated revenues, often making newspapers profitable (or at least viable) ventures.

The printer hoped that subscribers would feel some sympathy about the costs he incurred, but he also determined, “reluctantly … and with the utmost Pain,” to sue those who still refused to pay.  Carter lamented that “he finds himself compelled to acquaint ALL such, that their Accounts must and will be put in Suit, if not very speedily discharged.” Despite his exasperation and emphasizing that he felt “compelled” to pursue such a course, Carter likely never initiated any suits.  Printers frequently made such threats, but rarely alienated subscribers by following through on them.  After all, selling advertising depended in part on circulation numbers.  Printers realized they had the potential to come out ahead on advertisements even if they took a loss on subscriptions.