GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just imported from BRITAIN, in the ship Spiers.”
During the eighteenth century, a “period of general prosperity,” the “consumer revolution” was the driving force for economic change in Europe and the colonies. Colonists raised staple crops in order to export and then purchased imported goods that interested them, like the “Assortment of European GOODS” that arrived on the Spiers. Through advertising, shopkeepers and merchantsfrom different social and economic backgrounds were able to promote and list the various products that they had in stock. By doing so, they attempted to interest many people in the vast number of products that arrived from Europe.
As I analyzed this advertisement, I noted that George Purdie and Richard Taylor announced the arrival of newly imported European goods, which they sold for reasonable prices in Smithfield and Petersburg. These included products from places other than just England, like “German rolls,” “German serges,” and “Irish linens and sheetings.” This advertisement opened up an opportunity for colonists to assemble and purchase a variety of goods at shops in Smithfield and Petersburg. Purdie and Taylor advertised goods that came from far away, but they drew colonists in Virginia together through shopping.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The heading that appeared above the advertisement that Carolyn selected reveals that it was the first advertisement that appeared in the November 6, 1766, issue of the Virginia Gazette. The advertisement itself provides insight into the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, as Carolyn describes. In turn, I have chosen to examine the prominence of advertising throughout the entire issue in which it appeared.
Like other newspapers published in 1766, the Virginia Gazette consisted of four pages, created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and than folding it in half. Each of those pages had three columns (along with the masthead that extended across the top of the first page and the colophon that extended across the bottom of the fourth page). Thus each issue of the Virginia Gazette had twelve total columns for news, advertisements, and other items. (This issue included a poem on the first page.) Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, like other printers, published their newspaper only once a week. Sometimes eighteenth-century printers issued supplements when circumstances merited, but usually four pages of content sufficed for most weeks.
How was that content distributed in this issue? Purdie and Taylor’s notice was the first advertisement in the issue, but how much of the issue consisted of advertising? The section for advertisements began at the bottom of the first column on the second page and continued throughout the remainder of the issue. Except for the colophon, the final two pages featured advertising exclusively. In total, eight of the twelve columns – two-thirds of the issue – were given over to advertising (which generated additional revenue for the printers).
Many of those advertisements offered slaves for sale. More than a dozen advertisements, taking up an entire column, announced stray horses that had been “Taken up” so they could be returned to their owners. Some advertisements warned against runaway slaves and servants. Others made announcements of various sorts. Still, a fair number of advertisements promoted consumer goods and services. As Carolyn suggests, the rituals of imagining, examining, and purchasing imported goods gave colonists common experiences. Not every issue of the Virginia Gazette or other newspapers included so much advertising, but across the colonies wholesales and retailers regularly resorted to the public prints to encourage consumption of an increasing array of imported goods.
 T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4, (October 1986): 476.
 Breen, “Empire of Goods,” 475.