March 7

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (March 7, 1771).

“New Garden SEEDS, JUST IMPORTED By Elizabeth Greenleaf.”

It was a sign of spring approaching.  Each year in the late 1760s and early 1770s women who sold seeds placed advertisements in the several newspapers published in Boston, starting in early March and continuing for the next couple of months.  Although printers and compositors usually did not arrange advertisements according to any particular classification, they did often place together the notices from these female seed sellers when they made their annual appearances in the public prints.  Most did not advertise other goods at other times of the year.

The appropriately named Elizabeth Greenleaf was the first to advertise in 1771.  On March 7, she placed an advertisement about “New Garden SEEDS,” including “Early Pease, Beans, and Garden Seeds of all Sorts” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Her advertisement ran alone, but soon other women would place their own in the Weekly News-Letter and the other newspapers published in Boston.  Their numbers increased as the weather changed and colonists, especially women, anticipated planting gardens.

Two kinds of advertisements in colonial newspapers helped mark the passage of time and the transition from one season to another.  Advertisements placed by female seed sellers harkened the arrival of spring, while advertisements for almanacs signaled the end of one year and the beginning of another.  Advertisements for almanacs ran in newspapers from New Hampshire to Georgia, but notices about seeds sold by a coterie of female retailers were unique to Boston’s newspapers.

This is the sixth year that the Adverts 250 Project traces the appearance of these advertisements.  Each year they have been a welcome herald of spring’s imminent arrival, a harbinger of the end of winter and the beginning of a new season with warmer weather and more hours of sunlight each day.  In that regard, these advertisements certainly resonate in the twenty-first century, as much now as in the eighteenth century when colonial readers in Boston and its hinterlands first encountered them.

December 3

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (December 3, 1770).

“Any quantity of seedling plants of the different species, can be got ready at a short notice, to be shipped to any Part of the World.”

Thomas Vallentine wanted his clientele in New York and beyond to feel important.  In an advertisement in the supplement that accompanied the December 3, 1770, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he addressed potential clients as “The NOBILITY, GENTRY, AND others employ’d in botany and gardening.”  The “nursery and seedsman” advised such illustrious prospective patrons that he “collects and keeps for sale, assortments of most kinds of seeds of trees, shrubs, and flowers, produced by this country.”  To further underscore both his own importance and the importance of those who purchased seeds from him, he declared that his “care and assiduity, have been experienced by some of the first personages in Europe and America.”  His clients may have included colonial elites who planted decorative gardens as well as others who participated in transatlantic scientific discourses about the natural world.  At least that was the impression he wanted to give.

To generate greater demand for his services, Vallentine described some of his business practices and offered a guarantee.  He assured prospective customers that he could supply “the largest orders.”  He gave special attention to cones, pods, and other kinds of seeds that were “liable to germinate or lose their vegetative qualities” before customers received them.  To prevent either of those misfortunes, those items were “carefully preserved in sand.”  Furthermore, he pledged that “if any of the seeds he may dispose of should happen to miscarry” then he would “supply the purchaser with an equal quantity of such seeds” free of charge.  That guarantee came with an additional provision; Vallentine provided replacement seeds only when clients had not “sowed and attended as directed by Mr. Philip Miller’s gardeners dictionary.”  In stating that condition, he further described his clientele as gardeners and botanists familiar with a particular publication and the guidelines it provided for raising a variety of plants.

Vallentine also noted that he provided “Any quantity of seedling plants of the different species … to be shipped to any Part of the World” on short notice.  That made the packaging all the more important, but it also testified to the types of clients he anticipated attracting with his advertisement.  Colonists who corresponded with botanists in other parts of the Atlantic world could acquire North American seeds and seedlings from Vallentine and then arrange to have them transported to distant destinations.  As Chris Parsons and Kathleen S. Murphy have described in “Ecosystems under Sail:  Specimen Transport in the Eighteenth-Century French and British Atlantics,” botanists and their correspondents on both sides of the Atlantic invested significant time and effort in devising the best methods for shipping flora from one place to another for further study.[1]  Vallentine did not go into great detail about his methods, but those he did briefly describe in his advertisement made clear his familiarity with best practices in the field.  The “nursery and seedsman” was prepared to serve a specialized clientele.

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[1] Chris Parsons and Kathleen S. Murphy, “Ecosystems under Sail: Specimen Transport in the Eighteenth-Century French and British Atlantics,” Early American Studies 10, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 503-29.

September 17

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

Boston-Gazette (September 17, 1770).

“To be sold one third Part cheaper than they can be purchased at any Place in Boston.”

Abigail Davidson was one of several women in Boston who placed newspaper advertisements offering seeds for sale in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Their advertisements usually ran in multiple newspapers starting late in the winter and continuing through the spring.  Most of these female seed sellers, including Davidson, did not place advertisements for seeds or other goods at any other time during the year.  That made Davidson’s advertisement in the September 17, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette all the more notable.

Rather than marketing seeds exclusively, Davidson offered trees, bushes, and “all Sorts of dried Sweet Herbs” as well.  She proclaimed that she had “a large Collection of the best Sorts of young graffed and innoculated English Fruit Trees.”  That work had been done “by William Davidson, deceased.”  Abigail did not comment on her relationship to the deceased William, but expected that prospective customers were familiar with his reputation for horticulture.  She did not previously mention a husband, son, brother, or other male relation in her advertisements, but perhaps a recent death in the family prompted her to assume greater responsibilities that had her placing advertisements in the fall in addition to the spring.  Widows who operated family businesses following the death of their husbands frequently made reference to their departed spouses in their newspaper advertisements as a means of offering reassurance to prospective customers that the quality of their goods and services continued uninterrupted.

Davidson was determined to attract customers and set her prices accordingly.  In a nota bene that concluded her advertisement, she declared that she sold her trees, bushes, and seeds “one third Part cheaper than they can be purchased at any Place in Boston.”  In other words, she offered a deep discount to her customers.  If she feared the family business might lose customers following the death of William, this strategy stood to preserve those relationships as well as entice new customers interested in significant savings.  Davidson combined William’s reputation and bargain prices in her marketing efforts.

April 6

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

Apr 6 - 4:6:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 6, 1770).

“Seeds.”

It was a sign of spring.  Just as advertisements for almanacs told readers of colonial newspapers that fall had arrived and the new year was coming, advertisements for seeds signified that winter was coming to an end and spring would soon be upon them.  In the newspapers published in Boston in the late 1760s and early 1770s, this meant a dramatic increase in female entrepreneurs among those who placed advertisements.  Women who sold goods or provided services appeared only sporadically among newspaper notices throughout the rest of the year, but turned out in much greater numbers to peddle seeds in the spring.

Although printers and compositors did not usually organize or classify advertisements according to their purpose in eighteenth-century newspapers, they did tend to group together notices placed by women selling seeds.  Consider the last column of the final page of the April 6, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Although it concluded with a legal notice, advertisements for seeds sold by women comprised the rest of the column. Bethiah Oliver hawked seeds available at her shop “opposite the Rev. Dr. Sewall’s Meeting House.”  The appropriately named Elizabeth Greenleaf advised prospective customers to visit her shop “at the End of Union-Street, over-against the BLUE-BALL.”:  Elizabeth Clark and Elizabeth Nowell sold seeds at their shop “six Doors to the Southward of the Mill-Bridge.”  Susanna Renken also carried seeds at her shop “In Fore Street, near the Draw-Bridge.”  She was the only member of this sorority who advertised other wares, declaring that she stocked “all sorts of English Goods, imported before the Non-importation Agreement took Place.”  She was also the only one who sometimes advertised at other times during the year.  Did the others sell only seeds and operate seasonal businesses?  Or did they also carry other wares but refrain from advertising?

Spring planting was a ritual for colonists, including women who kept gardens to help feed their families.  Placing advertisements about seeds for growing peas, beans, onions, turnips, lettuce, and other produce was a ritual for the female seed sellers of Boston.  Encountering those advertisements in the city’s newspapers became one or many markers of the passage of time and the progression of the seasons for readers of those newspapers.  The news changed from year to year, but advertisements for seeds in the spring was a constant feature of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and other newspaper.

March 15

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

Mar 15 - 3:15:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (March 15, 1770).

“All sorts of English Goods, imported before the Non-importation Agreement took place.”

Richard Draper, printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, included coverage of the “bloody massacre” and the funerals of the victims in the March 15, 1770, edition of his newspaper.  In so doing, he adopted a method commonly used by printers throughout the colonies:  he reprinted news that already appeared in another newspaper.  In this case, he reprinted an article about the funeral procession that Benjamin Edes and John Gill originally printed in the March 12, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette, though Draper included a brief addendum at the conclusion.  “It is supposed,” he added, “that their must have been a greater Number of People from Town and Country at the Funeral of those who were massacred by the Soldiers, than were ever together on this Continent on any Occasion.”  Draper even included an image depicting the coffins of Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks.  Edes and Gill presumably loaned him the woodcut.

The article, along with the dramatic image that drew attention to it, aimed to disseminate information about the Boston Massacre to readers in the city and far beyond.  The advertisements that appeared in close proximity may have received more notice – and more scrutiny – than under other circumstances.  The two notices that ran immediately next to the article about the “bloody massacre,” both placed by female seed seller commencing their annual marketing campaigns as spring approached, addressed the politics of the period, though they did not comment explicitly on recent events in King Street or the funeral procession that followed.  Susanna Renken listed the seeds she offered for sale, but also declared that she stocked “all sorts of English Goods.”  She carefully noted that she imported those wares “before the Non-importation Agreement took Place.”  Similarly, Elizabeth Clark and Elizabeth Nowell asserted that they imported their seeds from London and sold them “By Consent of the Committee of Merchants” who oversaw adherence to the nonimportation agreement and reported violators.

These advertisements demonstrate that readers did not experience a respite from politics and current events when they perused advertisements for consumer goods and services during the era of the American Revolution.  Instead, advertisers increasingly inflected politics into their notices as they enticed prospective customers not only to make purchases but also to make principled decisions about which merchandise they did buy.  Those advertisers assured the community that they had already made such principled decisions themselves.

March 5

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

Mar 5 - 3:5:1770 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 5, 1770).

“Large Marrowfats, early Charlston.”

Susanna Renken and Abigail Davidson were the first in 1770.  Spring was on the way.  Newspaper advertisements for garden seeds were among the many signs of the changing seasons that greeted colonists in Massachusetts on the eve of the American Revolution.  Every year a cohort of women took to the pages of the several newspapers published in Boston to promote the seeds they offered for sale.  Renken and Davidson both placed advertisements in the March 5, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette, conveniently placed one after the other.  Readers could expect that soon advertisements placed by other female entrepreneurs would join them.  Although printers and compositors usually did not impose any sort of classification system on newspaper notices, they did tend to cluster advertisements by women selling seeds together, a nod toward the possibility of organizing the information in advertisements for the convenience of subscribers and other readers.  Renken, usually one of the most prolific and aggressive of the female seed sellers when it came to advertising, also placed a notice (with identical copy) in the March 5 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.

Renken concluded her advertisement with a brief note about other merchandise available at her shop, “all sorts of English Goods, imported before the Non-importation Agreement took Place.”  That brief reference to a commercial strategy for protesting the duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts belied how the imperial crisis would intensify by the end of the day.  That evening a crowd outside the Boston Custom House on King Street (now State Street), harassing British soldiers.  The encounter culminated in the Boston Massacre or what Paul Revere termed the “BLOODY MASSACRE” in an engraving intended to stoke patriotic sentiment among the colonists.  Three men died instantly; two others who were wounded died soon after.  Collectively, they have been considered the first casualties of the American Revolution, along with Christopher Seider who had died less than two weeks earlier.  A week after Renken and Davidson placed their first advertisements of the season, other women joined them in advertising seeds in the Boston-Gazette.  Their advertisements, however, were enclosed in thick borders that denoted mourning.  Many of them appeared on the same page as coverage of the Boston Massacre.

July 26

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

Jul 26 - 7:26:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 26, 1769).

“Who has for sale, all sorts of garden seeds and flower roots.”

Colonists placed advertisements in newspapers for a variety of reasons. Some marketed consumer goods and services. Many published legal notices. Others made announcements and shared news. In the July 26, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette, for instance, John Martin and James Martin advertised rum, wine, and sugar available at their store on Habersham’s Wharf in Savannah. Morgan and Roche also addressed consumers, informing them that they pursued “the TAYLOR BUSINESS in all its branches.” Among the legal notices, the executors of John Luptan’s estate announced that they would conclude settling accounts and “pay out what remains … to the heirs” on January 1. Another from the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Customs warned about the consequences of smuggling and doctored ship manifests that did not make “true reports of their cargoes.” James Wilson declared that his wife, Jane, “eloped” from him and since she placed herself beyond the authority of his household he would not pay “any debts of her contracting.” Among advertisements that also delivered news, the Trustees for the Presbyterian Meeeting House advised those who pledged to make contributions that “one fifth of the subscription money is immediately wanted” and requested payment. Another stated that “SIX NEGROES … three men, two women, and one girl” escaped from Thomas Young and might be headed towards some of the Sea Islands.

Each of those advertisers had a specific purpose in mind when placing their notices in the public prints, but other advertisers used the space they purchased to pursue more than one goal. Robert Hunter, for example, asserted that recently “several trespasses” occurred at Good Hope and Spring Gardens. To prevent further disturbances and theft, Hunter advised the public that intruders could expect to encounter “guns, dogs, or other snares.” Only after delivering this warning did Hunter briefly promote “all sorts of garden seeds and flower roots” that he offered for sale, a secondary purpose for his advertisement. A similar advertisement ran in the Georgia Gazette a year earlier, that one also lamenting trespassers and theft at Spring Gardens and signed by Robert Winter. It also concluded with a brief note that “Said Winter has all sorts of garden seeds to dispose of.” (Perhaps either “Robert Hunter” or “Robert Winter” was a misprint in one of the advertisements.) In both instances, the advertiser seized an opportunity to encourage sales of seeds, drawing attention to that enterprise after first rehearsing an interesting story about trespassers and threats of “guns, dogs, or other snares.” Stories of intruders and theft implicitly testified to the value of the plants at Good Hope and Spring Gardens, making the seeds all the more attractive to prospective buyers. Hunter leveraged unfortunate events in his efforts to encourage sales.

March 28

GUEST CURATOR: Sean Duda

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

Essex Gazette (March 28, 1769).

“A fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds.”

In this advertisement for seeds Benjamin Coats mentioned beans, peas, carrots, and many other vegetables. Gardening was a common practice in the colonies, and it was often women who kept the gardens for their families. In As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans, Stephanie Grauman Wolf also uses advertisements about seeds to examine life in eighteenth-century America, including an advertisement from a Boston newspapers in 1748. She states, “The purchase of seeds involved women in a wider world of commerce than we might have supposed, and this involvement included selling extra produce.”[1] Gardening was one of the outlets that women used to interact with the wider world of trade in the eighteenth century. Wolf also notes that certain plants were more popular regionally: “Pease for ‘English pease porridge’ were supplanted by beans for “baked beans” in New England.”[2] She also notes that potatoes and tomatoes were popular in the northern colonies, while sweet potatoes were popular in the southern colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

When readers of the Essex Gazette finished perusing Benjamin Coats’s advertisement for a “fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds” they almost immediately encountered the same inventory listed in Susanna Renken’s advertisement, published in the same column just two advertisements below. Coats and Renken did not merely offer similar wares. The copy of their advertisements was identical, with the exception of their names, the locations of their shops, and a short addendum to Renken’s advertisement that announced she “Also [had] a Box of China Ware to sell.” Coats sold his seeds locally, “Near the School-House in SALEM,” but Renken attempted to enlarge her share of the market for seeds she sold “In Fore-street, near the Draw-Bridge, BOSTON.” The lists of seeds Coats and Renken offered for sale were identical, both in content and order. Purveyors of goods often began their advertisements by acknowledging the origins, often deploying formulaic language that included the names of the vessel and captain that had transported the goods to the local port. In this case, Coats and Renken used exactly the same language: “Imported in Capt. Hulme from LONDON, and to be sold by …”

Essex Gazette (March 28, 1769).

How did two advertisers end up publishing virtually identical copy? Examining the publication history of the advertisements provides some clues. Both advertisements first appeared in the Essex Gazette on March 14, 1769, and ran again on March 21 and 28. Prior to that, Renken’s advertisement ran in three Boston newspapers. It first appeared in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on February 27, without the note about “China Ware,” and then continued weekly in each of those newspapers (March 6, 13, 20, and 27). It did not run in the Boston Post-Boy (published concurrently with Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette) until March 6, a week after it first appeared in the other newspapers, but after that it also ran every week for the rest of the month. That one included the note about “China Ware,” suggesting that Renken may have clipped it from that newspaper and submitted it to the Essex Gazette with instructions to publish it without alteration.

Renken’s advertisement ran in newspapers printed in Boston and distributed far beyond that city eight times before she and Coats published nearly identical advertisements in the Essex Gazette. Coats certainly had plenty of opportunities to see the advertisement and either clip it or copy it to transform into an advertisement intended for his local newspaper. This would have been a particularly efficient means of generating copy if Renken had been his supplier, especially if he did not realize that she planned to expand her marketing campaign beyond Boston’s newspapers. Alternately, if both Coats and Renken dealt with the same commercial seed suppliers from England, they could have both copied from letters or printed lists provided by correspondents on the other side of the Atlantic. That does not explain, however, the time that elapsed between Renken’s first advertisement in Boston and Coats’s advertisement in the Essex Gazette two weeks later.

For the past several years Renken had aggressively advertised garden seeds in Boston’s newspapers in the spring. The Essex Gazette commenced publication in August 1768, making the spring of 1769 the first time that Renken could also advertise in that newspaper. Perhaps she initially overlooked it as a new option. If she did sell seeds wholesale to Coats for resale in Salem, that might have prompted her to think about better addressing the market for her merchandise in the nearby town. In that case, Coats probably would not have been pleased to see her advertisement appear simultaneously with his in his local newspaper, but he did have the advantage of proximity to prospective customers in Salem. Neither of them apparently felt so concerned about the similarities between their advertisements that they found it necessary to submit revisions for further insertions. Cooperation and competition between Coats and Renken seemed to exist side by side as their advertisements appeared one above the other.

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[1] Stephanie Grauman Wolf, As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans (New York: harper Perennial, 1994), 90.

[2] Wolf, As Various as Their Land, 89.

February 20

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

Boston-Gazette (February 20, 1769).

“To be sold by Lydia Dyar … A Variety of sundry Garden Seeds.”

It was a sign of spring, even though the season would not arrive for another month. Lydia Dyar placed an advertisement for “A Variety of sundry Garden Seeds” in the February 20, 1769, edition of the Boston-Gazette. In so doing, Dyar was one of the first advertisers to participate in an annual ritual. Just as the first appearances of advertisements for almanacs marked the arrival of fall, advertisements for garden seeds heralded spring, especially in newspapers published in Boston.

Dyar was one of several seed sellers who annually inserted advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and other local newspapers. Just a few days after her notice ran, Elizabeth Clark and Elizabeth Greenleaf both placed advertisements for seeds in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Over time many others who sold seeds, the overwhelming majority of them women, would join Clark, Greenleaf, and Dyar on the pages of the public prints. Each tended to advertise in multiple newspapers, presenting colonists with an image of a feminized occupational group. Compared to their male counterparts, relative few women who were purveyors of goods placed advertisements to promote their commercial activities. That made the simultaneous appearance of half a dozen or more advertisements by female seed sellers in a single issue of a newspaper particularly noticeable.

Compositors contributed to the enhanced visibility of those advertisements, often placing them together such that they filled entire columns or sometimes the smaller sheets issued as supplements to standard issues. Printers and compositors rarely organized advertisements by category; usually they did not impose any sort of classification system, yet advertisements for seeds were an exception. They tended to place those notices together, presenting readers with advertisement after advertisement that featured women’s names in larger font as the headlines. Most of these women rarely advertised other goods or services during the rest of the year, but for a couple of months in late winter and early spring they asserted a noteworthy presence in the pages of Boston’s newspapers.

July 20

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

Jul 20 - 7:20:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 20, 1768).

“Said Winter has all sorts of garden seeds to dispose of.”

Robert Winter advertised “all sorts of garden seeds” almost as an afterthought in a notice he placed in the July 20, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Winter served as the caretaker for several gardens – Pleasant Oak, Mulberry Hill, and Spring Gardens – that belonged to Dr. James Cuthbert. In the course of performing his duties he noticed a series of robberies committed by “several very indiscreet persons.” In turn, the caretaker took measures to prevent further thefts on the premises. He also turned to the public prints to warn fellow colonists about those measures, proclaiming that “he has guns, dogs, and other snares laid for such as may trespass there for the future.” Furthermore, should he catch anyone defacing any of the gardens Winter was “resolved to bring them to justice. The caretaker imagined a variety of possible suspects, including “apprentices, servants, and negroes.” He requested that “masters will caution” them “against the like errors.”

Only after signing his name to this notice did the caretaker insert an additional line that deviated from his primary purpose of preventing further robberies: “Said Winter has all sorts of garden seeds to dispose of.” Compared to extensive advertisements placed by others who specialized in selling seeds, this portion of Winter’s notice was exceptionally short. He did not elaborate on any of the varieties he offered for sale. He assumed that potential customers were already familiar with the gardens he tended and did not need further explanation. Indirectly, the series of robberies indicated a certain level of demand for the plants that sprang from his seeds.

Winter put virtually no effort into marketing his garden seeds. He merely made an appeal to choice by noting that he sold “all sorts.” Yet he did follow another convention common to many eighteenth-century advertisements. Often colonists placed notices with two purposes. In many cases, the primary purpose revolved around some sort of announcement, such as estate notices, calls to settle accounts before advertisers left town, or, in this instance, cautioning robbers against further attempts. Having purchased space in the newspaper, some advertisers opted to pursue a secondary purpose: selling consumer goods and services. Having attracted attention for their primary purpose, but not wishing to distract from it too much, they appended short invitations for readers to make purchases, whether the contents of the rest of the notice applied to them or not.

Winter’s story of “guns, dogs, and other snares” intended to ward off the “several very indiscreet persons” who “made a practice of robbing the gardens” he tended likely garnered interest among readers solely because it was so different that the rest of the contents among the advertisements in the Georgia Gazette. The caretaker seized that opportunity to encourage sales of his seeds.