What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold by John Spooner, Choice Raisins.”
Considered on its own, John Spooner’s advertisement seems to do little by way of marketing. At a glance, this item appears to be merely an announcement. Its length – short enough to publish in a modern tweet (even a few days ago before Twitter doubled the numbers of characters) – did not allow Spooner to develop appeals to consumers, though he did make a nod toward quality by describing his raisins as “Choice.” The typography may have also drawn readers’ eyes, though the phrase “Choice Raisins” was no larger than the names of advertisers John Hunt, Henry Laughton, and Joshua Blanchard elsewhere on the same page.
The potential effectiveness of this advertisement cannot be understood by examining the copy and the layout alone. Taking into account its placement on the page relative to the specific content of other items, Spooner’s advertisement becomes much more powerful as an example of product placement in the eighteenth century.
It appeared in the middle column on the front page, immediately after a “Receipt
to make RAISIN WINE.” T. and J. Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, reported that they were “desired to publish” the recipe “for the benefit of the public,” though they did not indicate who made that recommendation. While Spooner may not have had any influence on the layout of news items and advertisements, the placement of his advertisement for “Choice Raisins” right after the recipe for raisin wine certainly seems like more than a fortunate coincidence. It raises suspicions that Spooner may not have considered it necessary to devise more extensive copy because he planned to have the recipe do the necessary marketing to incite demand for his raisins.
Even though it appeared as a separate and distinct item, perhaps the recipe should be considered one portion of a slightly longer advertisement. Some of its instructions suggested that consumers needed to obtain raisins as soon as possible if they wished to make their own raisin wine. The first line advised that readers should begin the process in October or November. Given that it appeared in print midway through November, readers needed to make haste getting started. That included purchasing the necessary supplies, especially raisins. The recipe eventually acknowledged that the process “may be begun in February or March,” but concluded with an assertion that “the fall is the best time.” The recipe then almost seamlessly flowed into Spooner’s advertisement for “Choice Raisins.”
The placement of the recipe and Spooner’s advertisement suggests deliberate product placement in an eighteenth-century newspaper. On its own, Spooner’s notice does not appear particularly innovative, but when considered in the context it may very well have deployed the most sophisticated marketing strategy of any advertisement in that issues of the Boston Evening-Post.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“CHOICE FRESH RAISINS.”
Why did William Whitwell emphasize “RAISINS” in his advertisement? In Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra Oliver describes how colonists ate and cooked with raisins. Raisins were one the most common dried fruits imported in the colonies. However, the raisins that colonists ate were dried with seeds in them so they were much larger than the ones we have today. When cooking with raisins many recipes called for them to be “stoned” or deseeded meaning the colonists had to rehydrate them. Raisins were baked into cakes, eaten with nuts and other fruits, and even soaked in rum and eaten with a spoon. They had diverse uses to the colonists and they lasted for long periods of time. Raisins were not only something that would keep well in storage, they were also a good source of fiber. They also contained antioxidants that might not have been present in other stored foods.
Colonists in Boston understood how harsh and unpredictable New England winters could be. In October they started preparing for the storms to come. Having the opportunity to buy dried fruit in advance of winter was probably very welcome. New England’s erratic weather patterns called for extra precaution and preparedness. This advertisement provided one way to get ready for the oncoming winter.
Even living in the twenty-first century we can sometimes be ill prepared for what a New England winter might entail, waiting until the last minute to take precautions when we hear that a big storm could be coming. We all know what it is like to go to the grocery story before a big storm, sometimes arriving a little too late. We live with many more amenities, like radars that can tell us a storm is coming or another grocery story a few miles down the road. The colonists, however, did not have these luxuries and had to gear up well in advance if they were going to make it to the spring. Living in colonial Massachusetts meant being as prepared as possible and storing food that would keep well into the winter months. The way raisins could be transformed into many other recipes with a few other ingredients, had a great nutritional value, and kept well made them a hot commodity for the colonists.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
On the whole, raisins have probably received less scholarly attention than other grocery items listed in eighteenth-century advertisements, especially sugar and spices. Still, historians of food, commerce, and consumer culture have not completely ignored the humble raisin. Lindsay consulted Sandra Louise Oliver’s Food in Colonial and Federal America to uncover several aspects of eating and cooking with raisins that differ quite significantly from modern practices. In the process, she offered a helpful reminder that even commodities that might appear familiar have changed over time. Raisins once came with seeds (until the late nineteenth century when seedless grapes were developed). Sugar once came in loafs. Colonists ate foods that modern Americans would consider simultaneously familiar and foreign.
In Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America, Christina J. Hodge elaborates on raisins and their uses in the eighteenth century. “Raisins were used in cooking as a sweetener and, if soaked in water, to produce homemade vinegar (a useful preservative).” How many modern consumers realize that raisins had such versatile uses 250 years ago? Hodge also reports that raisins grown in Spain were considered superior, but “British trade laws made direct importation to America from Spain illegal.” As a result, most raisins consumed by colonists likely came from grapes that had been locally grown. Advertisers were not the only colonists who promoted raisins in colonial newspapers. According to Hodge, in 1728 the Boston News-Letter ran an article of dietary suggestions for “Families of a Middling Figure, who bare the Character of being Genteel.” It listed raisins (along with currants, cranberries, and apples) as an appropriate supplement to be enjoyed as part of the main meal of the day. It seems that raisins truly merited the oversized headline in William Whitwell’s advertisement.
 Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 69-70.
 Christina J. Hodge, Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 88-89.
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Sallad Oyl and Malligo Raisons.”
John Newmarch listed only four items in his advertisement: “Sallad Oyl and Malligo Raisons, LEMONS, and good OATMEAL.” While modern readers probably recognize the lemons and oatmeal, I suspect that “Sallad Oyl and Malligo Raisons” may be a bit less familiar (even putting aside eighteenth-century spellings that had not yet been standardized).
What were “Malligo Raisons”?! Most likely they were raisins (produced by drying muscat grapes) from the Malaga region along the Mediterranean coast in southern Spain. Over the centuries Malaga raisins have gained a reputation as the black pearls of Andalusia, a description that testifies to both their taste and economic value. Today Malaga raisins have been incorporated into marketing campaigns as part of the region’s tourism industry, as in this article that promotes them as part of “the most traditional vintage in Europe” and details harvesting the grapes, one by one, and transporting them over difficult terrain on the backs of mules.
Given that “Sallad Oyl and Malligo Raisons” were grouped together in the advertisement, I imagine that “Sallad Oyl” refers to olive oil that also originated in Spain. Today, “salad oil” refers to any edible oil used in salad dressing, but the context here suggests Newmarch stocked olive oil in particular.
These grocery items – “Sallad Oyl and Malligo Raisons, LEMONS” – bring to mind the transatlantic networks of trade in the eighteenth century, but this is not a story exclusively about commercial exchange. These items also reveal transformations in taste as residents throughout the Atlantic world incorporated new foods into their diets as part of an ongoing Columbian Exchange.