April 15

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Providence Gazette (April 15, 1769).

“A Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES.”

On April 15, 1769, Samuel Young put an advertisement put in the Providence Gazette to tell readers that he wanted “to purchase a Quantity of Red and White Oak Hogshead STAVES, for which he will make good Pay.” Staves are narrow pieces of wood used to make barrels. A hogshead is a barrel that holds 64 gallons. According to Jeremy M. Bell, “Barrels were the shipping containers of their time” in the eighteenth century. They held an abundance of items, including alcohol, corn, and tobacco. Today it is not very common to see barrels in stores, except maybe a Cracker Barrel, but in colonial times they were extremely common in shops, very noticeable objects for customers. Bell states that barrels were so frequently used that the British Parliament passed the first act to standardize hogsheads and their measurements in 1423. Starting with a tun barrel at 252 gallons, they made it so that each designation of volume would then be cut in half. A pipe barrel held 126 gallons. Therefore, a hogshead measured 64 gallons and a standard barrel at 32 gallons. Practically everyone involved in commerce in early America used hogsheads and barrels of other sizes.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

No advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children appeared in the April 15, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. None of the paid notices offered men and women for sale. None of them encouraged white colonists to engage in acts of surveillance in the service of capturing escaped slaves and returning them to those who held them in bondage, nor did any describe suspected runaways that had been imprisoned. Yet black bodies were not absent from the pages of the Providence Gazette or the commercial landscape in the city.

Before he announced that he sold an “Assortment of European, East and West-India GOODS” and sought “Hogshead STAVES,” Samuel Young proclaimed that he operated a store at “the Sign of the Black Boy.” Enslaved men and women had labored to produce many of the goods Young sold. Enslaved men and women would eventually handle the barrels made from the staves Young acquired. They were integrated into the networks of production, exchange, and consumption in the early modern Atlantic world. That was a fact that would have been difficult for residents of Providence to overlook, but Young’s choice of shop sign provided a stark visual reminder that black bodies had been appropriated and exploited for a variety of purposes. Enslaved men and women contributed their labor, their skills, and their expertise in the production of commodities. The image of a “Black Boy” then served as a marketing logo and a landmark that aided colonists in finding many of those commodities as they navigated the streets of Providence.

Elsewhere in the April 15 issue, the Providence Gazette disseminated news about the imperial crisis brewing as a result of the Townshend Acts and other abuses by Parliament. Some correspondents wrote about “AMERICAN Liberty,” while others defended the prerogatives of George III and Parliament. Calls for “AMERICAN Liberty,” however, extended only so far, only to white colonists. Most colonists who reduced enslaved men, women, and children to a stylized image on “the Sign of the Black Boy” did not contemplate how to evenly apply their rhetoric to all of the residents of Rhode Island and the other colonies.

November 21

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

Nov 21 - 11:21:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 21, 1767).

“At as low a Rate as he ever yet sold, and as cheap as can be bought at any Store in New-England, by Retail.”

Throughout the eighteenth century shopkeepers and merchants consistently made appeals to price as they attempted to incite demand for their wares. Almost every advertisement for consumer goods and services in the November 21, 1767, edition of the Providence Gazette, for instance, made some sort of reference to low prices. While some advertisers resorted to formulaic language, others devised increasingly innovative and elaborate ways of promoting bargain prices to potential customers. These appeals ranged from simple to bold.

Joseph and William Russell characterized their prices as “very cheap.” Similarly, Jonathan Russell offered an array of imported merchandise “at the very cheapest rate,” allowing the typography to provide additional emphasis. In terms of standardized language, advertisers frequently used both “cheap” and “reasonable” to describe their prices. Archibald Stewart and Robert Taylor promised to sell their goods “at the most reasonable rates.” Edward Thurber pledged to “sell on the most reasonable Terms” at his shop at the Sign of the Brazen Lion. Jabez Bowen, Jr., used the same phrase, one encountered in newspaper advertisements throughout the colonies.

Rather than merely claim that they set low prices, some advertisers favorably compared their prices to what consumers could expect to pay elsewhere. Samuel Nightingale, Jr., asserted that he “will sell as cheap as any Person in Town.” Nathaniel Greene made a similar claim, stating the he was “determined to sell [his goods] as low as any are sold in this Town.” Not to be outdone, Samuel Black and James Brown proclaimed that they “will sell as cheap as are sold in New-England by Retail.” Samuel Young also raised the stakes, trumpeting that he sold his merchandise “at as low a Rate as he ever yet sold, and as cheap as can be bought at any Store in New-England, by Retail.” While not quite as verbose, Benjamin Thurber and Daniel Cahoon professed “to sell … as cheap as any Person in this Town, or elsewhere.” Potential customers did not need to look to Boston or New York for better deals!

Gideon Young inserted perhaps the most novel appeal to price, assuring readers “of having the full Worth of their Money,” but he followed that with formulaic language about “the very lowest rates.” Regardless of how they described their prices, retailers regularly noted them as a means of enticing prospective customers to visit their shops. Their advertisements were not mere announcements about goods for sale that relied on incipient consumer demand; instead, eighteenth-century shopkeepers promised bargains as a means of marketing their merchandise to customers who sometimes needed to be convinced to make purchases.

May 30

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

May 30 - 5:30:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 30, 1767).

“Samuel Young … begs Leave to notify the Gentlemen and Ladies of Town and Country.”

Samuel Young of Providence was new to shopkeeping, but he demonstrated in his first advertisement that he understood the conventions of eighteenth-century advertising. He incorporated several of the most common marketing appeals of the era, including price, quality, and consumer choice. He opened his notice with a pledge to “sell as cheap for Cash, as any Person in this Town, or elsewhere” and concluded by reiterating that he offered “the lowest Prices.” He went into greater detail about the “most excellent Quality” of his “European GOODS,” claiming that “all who have passed their Judgment on them” acknowledged “that they are better wrought than any that have yet been exposed to Sale here.” Similarly, he sold “the best of West-India Goods.” Savvy consumers probably greeted these boasts with some skepticism. After all, Young sold the same imported goods as his competitors. Although he did not enumerate his wares, Young stated that they comprised “a great Variety” and were “finely suited to the Wants of the People.” Hyperbolic at times, Young did not merely place a notice that announced he opened a new shop. Instead, drew on techniques already popular in consumer advertising to market his merchandise.

As a newcomer to his occupation, Young also attempted to reassure potential customers about his own character, arguing that he possessed the personal qualities to make sure they would receive satisfactory treatment during transactions. He was not afraid of hard work, intending to “give constant Attendance at his Shop.” He also seemed sensible that some of his claims came off a bit overstated. To that end, he persuaded readers “that he doth not mean to delude and betray People by false Pretensions.” Instead, he simply wished to “establish himself in the World, on the firm Foundation of Truth and Integrity.” Young’s advertisement appeared alongside commercial notices by shopkeepers with established reputations. He realized that he needed to make bold claims to attract attention to his business while simultaneously cultivating his own standing as an honest and fair dealer.