November 15

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams

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

Providence Gazette (November 15, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD, FOR CASH, BY Samuel Nightingale … Sealing wax and wafers.”

In this advertisement published in the Providence Gazette, Samuel Nightingale offered a wide assortment of goods in his “new shop.” Out of the many goods to choose to research, I decided to take a look at sealing wax and wafers.

Letters in colonial America were not placed into separate envelopes before being sent. Instead, the letters themselves were folded into hand-made envelopes and sealed closed with either sealing wax or wafers.[1] Using sealing wax involved melting a stick of wax over the folded letter with a candle. Before the wax dried, the writer pressed a stamp into the wax to form a seal. The process was messy and time consuming compared to the alternative method to seal letters: wafers. Wafers were pre-made seals that would stick to paper when they were wet.

Reading about the ways letters were sealed reveals a few issues of security and privacy involving mail in the colonies. In “The Meaning and Value of Privacy,” Daniel J. Solove writes, “In colonial America, mail was often insecure. Letters sealed only with wax, left many people concerned that they were far from secure.”[2] Solove goes on to say that Benjamin Franklin, who was a colonial postmaster general, required his post workers to take an oath that they would not open up other people’s mail. [3] We can infer from sealing wax and wafers that there was a certain lack of privacy that existed in the postal system in colonial America.



More than any other newspaper printers in the 1760s, Sarah Goddard and Company, the printers of the Providence Gazette, seem to have allowed advertisers to experiment with innovative graphic design. Goddard may have even suggested and encouraged innovative approaches to layout that distinguished individual advertisements from each other and her newspaper from others circulating in New England and beyond.

The Providence Gazette, established by William Goddard in 1762, ceased publication in May 1765. When it was resurrected by his mother in August 1766, issues almost immediately included oversized advertisements that spanned two columns and featured decorative borders. The Adverts 250 Project has already examined several of those advertisements, including notices by Thompson and Arnold and Benjamin and Edward Thurber and Samuel Nightingale, Jr. Although copies of Goddard’s Providence Gazette most certainly made their way to Boston and New York and beyond, neither advertisers nor printers in other cities were quick to adopt the unique layout that resembled a trade card superimposed on a page of the newspaper. Given that printers ultimately controlled the content and layout of their newspapers, it is possible that shopkeepers requested similar treatment for their advertisements only to meet resistance from printers who did not wish to disrupt the format of their publications.

Considering that the Providence Gazette was only recently revived and may not yet have had an extensive cohort of advertisers providing financial support for the endeavor, Goddard may have been more eager and willing to experiment with the graphic design elements of advertising as a means of filling space and possibly raising more interest among potential new advertisers. Whatever the reasons, advertisements of the type that Mary has selected for today appeared exclusively in the Providence Gazette during the summer and fall of 1766. Keep an eye open for next week’s entry featuring an advertisement from the Providence Gazette to see how Mary Goddard and Company and their advertisers continued to create attention-grabbing advertisements using innovative graphic design.


[1] E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 284.

[2] Daniel H. Solove, “The Meaning and Value of Privacy,” in Social Dimensions of Privacy: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Beate Roessler and Dorota Mokrosinka (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 75.

[3] Solove, “Meaning and Value of Privacy,” 76.

November 2


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

Providence Gazette (November 1, 1766).

“A Variety of English, East and West-India GOODS, … to be sold at the cheapest Rate for CASH.”

In this advertisement in the Providence Gazette, Samuel Nightingale, Jr., sold an assortment of goods from England, as well as both the East and West Indies, in his “new Shop, near the Great Bridge” in Providence.

Since this advertisement mentions earlier issues that included the actual information about what was being sold, I went in search of them. In issue 145, published on October 25, 1766, I found a much larger advertisement with a vast list of goods. The majority of the items on the list were linens and other sorts of textiles, but it also included other things, such as “Ivory and buckling combs,” “Pewter dishes, plates and basons,” and “Flat irons. English Steel.”

Providence Gazette (October 18, 1766).

Pewter was very popular in the eighteenth century. James A. Mulholland notes that “[a]ll but the poorest families owned at least one or two pewter items, and wealthier families accumulated substantial inventories of pewterware, including porrigngers, tankards, coffeepots, and candlesticks.”[1] He also noted that the majority of pewter came from England.



I was very excited when Ceara selected this advertisement. When guest curators are participating in this project I leave the decisions about which advertisements to feature to them, provided they follow the project’s methodology. That means that they sometimes pass over advertisements that I find either interesting or significant, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes when working on a collaborative project. After all, the guest curators can learn something interesting or significant about colonial America from any advertisement.

Why was I so excited when Ceara submitted this advertisement for approval? She mentioned the reason in her own analysis. Samuel Nightingale, Jr., instructed potential customers to “[see No. 144 and 145 of this Gazette]” for a list of the “Variety of English, East and West-India GOODS” that he sold. When she noticed this, Ceara did the sort of historical detective work that I consider an enjoyable part of this project: she consulted the earlier issues (October 11 and 18, 1766) of the Providence Gazette to find out more about those advertisements. In the process, she discovered an advertisement that resembled others by Thompson and Arnold and Benjamin Thurber and Edward Thurber, both previously featured by the Adverts 250 Project.

In the course of a few weeks, Nightingale published two advertisements with rather extraordinary features. His first advertisement borrowed innovations from competitors, but those innovations had not been so widely adopted that Nightingale’s advertisement blended in with others. With a decorative border and spanning two columns, Nightingale’s earlier advertisements dominated the pages on which they appeared.

Providence Gazette (October 18, 1766).

Today’s advertisement did not have the same visual impact, but it did incorporate one rather unusual feature. It instructed readers to consult another newspaper to see the original advertisement. Nightingale assumed a high level of interest among potential customers. At the very least, he hoped to incite interest by offering a brief description and then challenging readers to find the original advertisements in earlier issues.

This tells us something about how colonists used newspapers. Nightingale’s directions to “[see No. 144 and 145 of this Gazette]” only worked if readers still had access to those issues. It suggests that subscribers held on to newspapers for at least several weeks to consult the news, advertisements, and other items they contained. Newspapers were not immediately ephemeral in the eighteenth century. In turn, that means that the advertisement printed in colonial newspapers had longer lives than the week that passed before the publication of the next issue.

Running his lengthy advertisement for two weeks may have been a significant investment for Samuel Nightingale, Jr., but it may also have been a risk worth taking if he could depend on it to keep circulating for quite some time after that. To shore up his bet, today’s brief notice directed potential customers back to the impressive original advertisement.


[1] James A. Mulholland, History of Metals in Colonial America (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981), 95.