What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.”
Francis Shaw, Jr., stocked a “LARGE and neat Assortment of cream and other coloured WARE, of the newest fashion,” at his shop in Boston. In an advertisement in the December 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Spy, he gave his locations as “the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.” American cities did not use standardized street numbers to organize urban spaces until the late 1780s and early 1790s. Before then, residents relied on a variety of landmarks and other descriptions to give directions. They often used them in combination, as Shaw did. He gave his street, but he also indicated the previous occupant of his store to guide prospective customers familiar with Gould’s business on Back Street. He also used a shop sign for reference, though the Sign of the Crown and Scepter did not mark his own location. Instead, he mentioned it as a landmark, describing his location “opposite” or across the street from the sign.
Other advertisers deployed similar strategies in describing their locations. On the same day that Shaw placed his advertisement, John Langdon placed a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury. In it, he invited prospective customers to “his Store lately Improv’d by Messr’s Cox & Berry nearly opposite the Post-Office.” Peter Roberts sold medicines and medical equipment at his shop “opposite the West-Door of the Town-House.” John Crosby, a frequent advertiser who peddled citrus fruits and other grocery items, gave his location as “the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons at the South-End.” Samuel Abbot declared that his store was located “on Greene’s Wharff, near the East of the Market.” Collectively, these advertisements and others suggest some of the methods colonists used to make sense of the cityscape and navigate the streets of Boston. These descriptions supplement eighteenth-century maps, engravings, paintings, drawings, and other visual images as well as travel narratives and letters that depicted the busy port. They also reveal important relationships, such as previous occupants and nearby landmarks, that mattered to both advertisers and readers of early American newspapers. Commercial notices provided their own portraits of cities like Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.