February 21

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

Feb 21 - 2:18:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (February 18, 1768).

“No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office.”

John Gerrish had a bone to pick with Elias Dupee. Gerrish operated the North-End Vendue-Office. Dupee, his rival, ran the New-Auction Room. The two competed for both clients who supplied merchandise and bidders who purchased those wares.

On February 15, 1768, Dupee placed advertisements impugning Gerrish’s reputation in two newspapers, the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Post-Boy. Gerrish was so concerned about the accusations leveled against him that he did not wait a week to respond in the publications that originally ran Dupee’s advertisement. Instead, he published his own rebuttal just three days later in the Massachusetts Gazette. After devoting just a few lines to promoting his upcoming auction, Gerrish addressed Dupee’s allegations at length. Though he never mentioned his rival by name, Gerrish did closely paraphrase a portion of Dupee’s advertisement.

Dupee had offered a reward “to be paid to any Body, who shall bring to Justice, one John Taylor, who Stole out of the New Auction Room, the Night the Fire was, a blue Surtout Coat, and had it Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Anyone who resided in Boston would have know that John Gerrish was the auctioneer at the North-End Vendue-Office, especially anyone who regularly read any of the local newspapers. Gerrish, like Dupee and Joseph Russell from the Auction-Room in Queen Street, advertised regularly in several newspapers.

In his advertisement, Dupee explicitly accused Taylor of being a thief, but he also implicitly alleged that Gerrish was Taylor’s fence when he stated that the stolen coat had been “Sold at the North-Vendue Office.” Such allegations had the potential to do significant damage to Gerrish’s reputation, scaring away bidders who did not wish to obtain stolen merchandise as well as suppliers who did not want their own names or ware associated with illicit business practices. Gerrish answered Dupee’s charges with a detailed timeline. The “Coat Sold for Taylor” had entered the North-End Vendue-Office ten days before the fire at Dupee’s New Auction Room, therefore it could not have been the same coat stolen the night of the fire. In addition, Gerrish identified discrepancies between the quality and price of the coat auctioned at his establishment and the one stolen from Dupee. Furthermore, the coat had been on display and “every Day exposed for Sale,” suggesting that many witnesses could attest to having seen it at the North-End Vendue-Office. Some of them could confirm the quality and value of that coat.

Gerrish acknowledged the possibility that Taylor had stolen a coat from Dupee, but if he had it was not the one that Gerrish auctioned. “Taylor may be a Thief,” he stated, “but verily he did not look more like one, than the Advertiser.” Dupee had attacked Gerrish’s reputation. Gerrish responded in kind. He also underscored, just in case readers had not followed all the complexity of his timeline, that “there is not the least probability, that the Coat Advertised, is the same that was Sold at the North-End Vendue-Office.”

Gerrish concluded with a message for prospective clients and potential bidders. “No Man can be more careful, and vigilant, than the Master of said Office, in endeavouring to detect suspected persons, –he has detected several, –let others beware.” Many colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century via an informal economy that included secondhand and stolen goods. Newspaper advertisements frequently alerted readers about stolen goods. In addition, court records show that theft and fencing regularly occurred. That being the case, Gerrish devoted significant effort to demonstrating that he conducted a legitimate business that did not truck in stolen wares. He needed buyers and sellers, as well as the community more generally, to trust in his character if he wished to continue his business and compete against the rival auction houses in Boston.

Feb 21 - 2:15:1768 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (February 15, 1768).

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:19:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (June 19, 1766).

“EDWARD BROADFIELD has carried on the manufacture of STURGEON for fourteen years, and given a general satisfaction.”

Edward Broadfield told a dramatic tale of commercial rivalry, sabotage, subterfuge, and woe in his advertisement for pickled sturgeon from the June 19, 1766, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal.

He started by noting his qualifications and the quality of his product. He had “carried on the manufacture of STURGEON for fourteen years.” The pickled sturgeon he produced was as good as any imported from the Baltic, so good that the “honourable society of arts, manufactures and commerce” had presented him an award, including a cash prize, for the “best Sturgeon cured in America.”

The previous year some misfortunes forced Broadfield to take on a partner, who remained unnamed throughout the advertisement. The partner, in turn, attempted to force Broadfield out of his own business. The partner refused to send the necessary supplies to continue the business. Broadfield found himself in such a predicament, unable to pay his debts, that he left town in order to procure the necessary supplies on his own, leaving his wife to oversee his affairs while he was away.

In Broadfield’s absence, the partner sent “a French Indian and his wife, to supplant my wife.” Furthermore, he spread false rumors about Broadfield and attempted to bribe his wife to leave town. She did “quit the place,” but never received the promised payment for doing so.

This was all bad enough, but Broadfield’s reputation was further at stake. His wife left behind several kegs “branded with my brand” which the Indian and his wife then filled with their own pickled sturgeon. They sold and shipped it as though they were in partnership with Broadfield. His advertisement warned unsuspecting consumers about this trickery.

Broadfield announced that he continued business at Kensington, not at Lamberton where he had formerly pursued his craft. In most circumstances, a brand alone testified to the quality of the product in the kegs, but Broadfield needed customers to know that only pickled sturgeon that came from him directly in Kensington actually had his seal of approval. In addition, he listed one additional authorized seller in Philadelphia, “Mr. Jeremiah Baker, near the Crooked Billet, in Water-street.” Broadfield concluded by stressing that his fish was sold “by no other persons.”

Broadfield told quite a story in his advertisement. He attempted to leverage a frustrating, infuriating, and embarrassing series of events to rehabilitate his damaged reputation, warn others against the perfidy of his former partner, and attract customers for his own product. In the process of promoting his own pickled sturgeon, he aired a lot of dirty laundry. Perhaps a combination of sympathy and indignation resonated with customers.

June 15

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

Jun 15 - 6:13:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 13, 1766).

“The unwary purchaser may make use of this to prevent their being taken in.”

Throughout the eighteenth century many advertisers emphasized their own virtues, especially their good character. As urban centers increased in size, residents did not necessarily always know all the merchants and retailers who lived in their area. In addition, mobility and migration were common. People were constantly coming and going in colonial America: arriving from Europe, moving from colony to colony, seeking new opportunities wherever they could find them. Many commercial exchanges began with the parties not knowing each other. Accordingly, advertisers frequently assured potential customers of their good character.

This anonymously placed advertisement, on the other hand, warned readers of the Virginia Gazette against trusting Robert Bolling. Less than two weeks earlier “an examination of the weights at Robert Bolling’s warehouse” were “found to have lost, from 2 and half per cent. to 5 per cent. or more.” Bolling, “the designing seller” was cheating his customers.

Maintaining a good reputation played an important role in inaugurating and continuing commercial exchanges in eighteenth-century America. According to this advertisement, Bolling had taken advantage of “unwary purchaser[s]” who bought tobacco at his warehouse, calling his character into question.

Had Bolling intentionally adjusted the weights? Was he even aware that they were off? The advertisements suggest that was the case by describing him as a “designing seller.” However, it’s also possible that a competitor, disgruntled employee, or unhappy customer placed this advertisement as a means of undermining Bolling’s reputation, though it seems that “the designing seller” might have tracked down the author of this advertisement fairly easily with a visit or letter to the printer of the Virginia Gazette.

Jun 15 - 6:13:1766 response Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 13, 1766).

At any rate, Bolling seems to have offered a response that suggested the original advertisement was nothing more than subterfuge designed by competitors who had “a great many ships to load” and wanted to prevent planters from selling their tobacco through Bolling’s warehouse. Empty or partially loaded ships diminished revenues. This advertisement suggested that the accusations against Bolling were nothing more than an attempt to direct business to another warehouse.

This was not the first time that commercial rivalries found voice in newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century, nor would it be the last.