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