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