February 22

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (February 22, 1771).

“&c. &c.”

Joshua Brackett placed an advertisement in the February 22, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette to inform prospective customers that he had “Just Imported … A fresh and general assortment of MEDICINES and GROCERIES.”  He listed some of the items available at his shop in Portsmouth, but concluded his notice with “&c.” (the abbreviation for et cetera commonly used in the eighteenth century) to indicate that consumers would discover much more merchandise on hand when they did business with him.  Indeed, “&c.” at the end of a paragraph about medicines and “&c. &c.” at the end of a paragraph about groceries underscored the amount of choice consumers encountered at his store.  Brackett carried so many medicines and groceries that he could not include all of them in his advertisement.

Among the medicines, Brackett listed several popular patent medicines so familiar to consumers that he did not need to indicate which symptoms each alleviated.  He stocked “Lockyer’s and Anderson’s Pills, James’s Powders, Stoughton Elexir, Jesuits Drops, [and] Turlington’s Balsam.”  For colonial consumers, these amounted to eighteenth-century versions of over-the-counter medications.  Customers might have consulted with Brackett when making selections, but they were also likely to visit his shop already knowing which medicines they intended to purchase.  The reputations of each patent medicine were already so widely known that Brackett did not need to comment on them.

Other advertisers sometimes went into greater detail, either listing many more items or offering descriptions of patent medicines and other goods.  Such notices, however, cost more due to the amount of space they filled (rather than the number of words they contained).  Brackett apparently considered it worth the investment to place a short notice in the New-Hampshire Gazette, but not a longer one.  He believed that he provided enough information to attract the attention of prospective customers, letting them know that he had an extensive inventory of popular medicines and groceries and that he charged low prices.  Brackett depended on those aspects of his advertisement to generate enough interest for readers to visit his shop and choose among his wares.

February 8

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (February 8, 1771).

“Parents and Masters may depend upon being as well used by sending their Children and Servants, as if present themselves.”

Edward Emerson took to the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette to advertise “ENGLISH and West India GOODS,” tea, coffee, sugar, spices, and tobacco available at his shop “Opposite the Town House in YORK,” a coastal town in the portion of Massachusetts that became Maine half a century later.  In 1771, fewer than thirty newspapers served the colonies that eventually declared independence.  Accordingly, most newspapers operated on a regional scale.  As a result, the New-Hampshire Gazette, printed in Portsmouth, was the local newspaper for Emerson and other residents of York.

Emerson emphasized both price and customer service in his advertisement, proclaiming that he was “determined to sell” his wares “at the lowest Cash price.”  He also anticipated receiving new inventory “which will be Sold as low as possible.”  When it came to customer service, consumers did not need to visit Emerson’s shops themselves.  Instead, they could send representatives, especially children and servants, to do their shopping without concern that Emerson would dismiss them or treat them unfairly.  “Parents and Masters,” the shopkeeper declared, “may depend upon being as well used by sending their Children and Servants, as if present themselves.”  That was a variation on promises that other shopkeepers sometimes made to prospective customers who preferred to place orders via the post.  Shopkeepers often served consumers who lived at a distance, offering assurances in their advertisements that they would be treated as well as if they visited in person.  This presumably applied to receiving both quality merchandise and the best prices.

Few eighteenth-century newspapers advertisements appeared flashy by today’s standards.  Emerson’s advertisement was not even flashy by the standards of the time, but perhaps that was not necessary in order to be effective.  Emerson sought to establish trust with prospective customers.  He offered low prices.  He allowed his clients to choose among a variety of quantities for most of his wares.  He promised to treat both customers and their representatives well rather than taking advantage of them.  If Emerson regularly perused the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette and other newspapers that circulated in the area, he certainly read advertisements with more sophisticated marketing strategies that he could have adapted for his own business.  Yet he did not.  Perhaps Emerson considered the appeals he did advance sufficient for establishing relationships with consumers seeking trustworthy purveyors of goods.

April 13

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

Apr 13 - 4:13:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 13, 1770).

At his Shop next to the Printing Office.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, most residences and businesses did not have standardized street addresses.  City directories as well as trade cards and billheads and other advertising ephemera reveal that some of the largest cities did adopt street numbers in the late 1780s and 1790s, but that practice did not arrive in other cities and towns until the nineteenth century.

Newspaper advertisements featured a variety of means of identifying locations of businesses in eighteenth-century America.  Some simply listed the street, as was the case in the advertisement for garden seeds that John Adams placed in the April 13, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Adams indicated that he sold his wares “In Queen Street, Portsmouth.”  The port town was small enough that Adams may not have needed to list an address of any sort for residents.  However, since the New-Hampshire Gazette was the only newspaper published in the colony and circulated far beyond Portsmouth, Adams may have included his street to aid prospective customers from the countryside who traveled to town or sent orders.

In the same issue, Gillam Butler advertised an assortment of textiles that he sold “At his Shop next to the Printing Office, in the Street that leads from the Parade to the Market and Ferry.”  He deployed two strategies for identifying his location.  Given that he did not frequently place advertisements, Butler may have thought it necessary to give as much information as possible to aid consumers who wished to visit his shop.  He named a landmark and described his location in relation to that landmark: “next to the Printing Office.”  He also provided more extensive information about the street.  In some cases, advertisers named intersecting streets to help readers get their bearings.  In this instance, Butler invoked other aspects of the street by describing other landmarks that it connected: “the Street that leads from the Parade to the Market and Ferry.”  He made it possible for prospective customers to imagine a map of his neighborhood to navigate to his shop.

To some extent, we have reverted to eighteenth-century means of thinking about where businesses are located as GPS systems become more advanced.  The algorithms that produce directions still rely on standardized street addresses, but users do not need to supply them or even be aware of them.  It is now possible to simply enter the name of a business and let the GPS take care of street numbers, landmarks, intersections, and a variety of other data.

December 15

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

“Stript Camblets     |     Knee Garters     |     Brass Ink Pots.”

Dec 15 - 12:15:1769 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (December 15, 1769).

According to the advertisement he placed in the December 15, 1769, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, Jacob Treadwell sold an assortment of goods at his shop in Portsmouth. He carried everything from textiles to tea kettles to “Locks & Latches.” His advertisement listed more than 120 items and promised even more, concluding with “&c. &c. &c.” (the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera). Enumerating his inventory served to demonstrate to prospective customers the extent of the choices Treadwell offered them. He did not have just a couple kinds of fabric in stock. Instead, he listed dozens of options available at his shop. He did not make general assertions about carrying housewares or hardware. Instead, he named an array of goods he sold, prompting consumers to imagine acquiring specific items.

Treadwell’s advertisement served as a catalog of his wares. The advertisement’s format, three neatly organized columns, helped prospective customers navigate that catalog. Publishing an extensive list of merchandise was a common marketing strategy in early America. Most advertisers who adopted that approach lumped their goods together in dense paragraphs of text that made it difficult for readers to distinguish among the multitude of items the advertisement included. Some advertisers, however, experimented with other formats, incorporating graphic design into their marketing efforts. Treadwell advertised the same items as other eighteenth-century retailers, but he made his inventory more accessible with the use of columns and white space.

Doing so liked incurred additional expense since most newspaper printers sold advertising by the amount of space it occupied rather than the number of words. Treadwell’s advertisement extended half a column as a result of its design. Had he opted for the paragraph format instead, the advertisement would have taken up a fraction of the space. Treadwell apparently believed that the potential return on his investment merited the additional expense. In making his advertisement easier for readers to peruse, he augmented the chances that they would become customers.

November 9

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

Nov 9 - Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (November 9, 1769).

“The Whole of which were imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”

William Greenleaf’s advertisement in the November 9, 1769, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter looked much like others that promoted consumer goods. Extending half a column, it listed a vast assortment of items available at his shop, everything from “Silk & worsted Sagathies” to “Ivory, Bone, & Ebony Fans” to “Necklaces and Earings of various sorts” to Persia Carpets three yards square.” In addition to its celebration of consumer culture and encouragement for colonists to acquire more goods, Greenleaf’s advertisement also addressed the politics of the day. The shopkeeper assured the entire community that his entire inventory had been “imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.” In so doing, he protected his reputation and signaled to prospective customers that they could buy his wares without compromising their political principles.

When it came to advertising textiles and accessories, the bulk of Greenleaf’s merchandise, most merchants and shopkeepers emphasized how recently their goods had arrived in the colonies. “Just Imported” implied that these items represented the latest fashions from London and other English cities. In 1769, however, this popular appeal no longer possessed its usual power to entice prospective customers. New merchandise was politically problematic merchandise. The merchants and traders of Boston and other towns in Massachusetts adopted nonimportation agreements to protest the duties Parliament imposed on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea. If Parliament intended to tax those items, then colonists resolved not to import an even greater array of goods from Britain. The goods that merchants and shopkeepers stocked and sold possessed political significance based on when those items arrived in the colonies.

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists observed the commercial practices of their friends, neighbors, and other members of their communities. Greenleaf realized that all merchants and shopkeepers were under scrutiny to detect if they violated the nonimportation agreement. Committees investigated suspected violations and published names and accounts of their actions in newspapers, alerting consumers not to do business with them and warning others to abide by the agreement. In such an environment, Greenleaf considered it imperative to assert that he sold merchandise that did not breach the nonimportation agreement. In his business practices, he expressed a commitment to the patriot cause.

October 1

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

Oct 1 - 9:28:1769 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (September 28, 1769).

“A likely healthy Negroe … to dispose of.”

Shopkeeper Magdalen Devine occasionally advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the late 1760s. She usually promoted “A LARGE assortment of dry GOODS,” as she did in the September 28, 1769, edition. Her advertisements were notable because they sometimes included a woodcut that depicted some of her wares, two rolls of fabric and two swatches unfurled to display the patterns. Devine relied on images rather than an extensive list of merchandise to communicate the choices available at her shop. Woodcuts commissioned by merchants and shopkeepers were relatively rare in early American newspaper advertisements. Devine was one of an exceptionally small number of women who deployed visual images in her marketing.

Yet Devine sought to accomplish more than just selling dry goods in some of her advertisements. The notice she ran in late September 1769 included a nota bene seemingly unrelated to her merchandise: “She has a likely healthy Negroe wench, about 18 years old, to dispose of, having no cause to part with her but want of employment.” Although most eighteenth-century readers would have found nothing notable about attempting to sell both textiles and an enslaved woman in a single advertisement, modern readers might find this notice particularly striking for the casual manner in which Devine treated another woman as a commodity.

Furthermore, the advertisement testifies to the presence of enslaved men and women in urban ports like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston during the era of the American Revolution. Throughout the colonies and throughout the Atlantic world, consumer culture and enslavement were inextricably linked. Commerce depended on the transatlantic slave trade as well as the skills and involuntary labor of enslaved men, women, and children. The advertisements for consumer goods that filled eighteenth-century newspapers, many of them listing dozens of items offered for sale, usually did not make direct reference to slavery, but colonists had access to those wares, the “LARGE assortment of dry GOODS” advertised by merchants and shopkeepers like Devine,” thanks to networks of exchange that included the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved labor, and the profits from both as an integral component. It was practically impossible to be either a retailer or a consumer in the eighteenth century without perpetuating slavery, directly or indirectly. More readily than most others, Devine’s advertisement makes clear that was the case.

September 26

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

Sep 26 - 9:26:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (September 26, 1769).

“A single article of which has not been imported since last year.”

As summer turned to fall in 1769, Nathan Frazier of Andover placed an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to inform prospective customers that he stocked “a very good assortment of Fall and Winter GOODS” that he sold both wholesale and retail. Like many other merchants and shopkeepers, he provided an extensive list of his merchandise as a means of demonstrating the many choices available to consumers. This catalog consisted primarily of textiles and accessories (everything from “Devonshire and Yorkshire kerseys and plains” to “taffaties and Persians of all colours” to “a genteel assortment of ribbons”), but Frazier also carried a “very large assortment of glass, delph and stone ware” and a “general assortment of hard ware goods” imported from London. Such advertisements became a familiar part of the consumer revolution in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Most such advertisements, however, emphasized that imported goods had only just arrived in the colonies, that they were fresh from London and other English ports. Merchants and shopkeepers usually promoted only the newest merchandise, tacitly assuring prospective customers the latest fashions rather than leftovers that consumers previously refused to purchase. Frazier did not adopt that approach in his advertisement, and with good reason. He framed his list of goods with assurances that “a single article of which has not been imported since last year,” which meant that his entire inventory had been in his possession for at least nine months and perhaps even longer. These were not the newest goods presented to customers as soon as they became available, but making that appeal was not politically viable in the fall of 1769. Colonists in Boston and other towns in Massachusetts adopted nonimportation agreements that commenced on January 1, 1769. They deployed this form of economic resistance to protest an imbalance of trade with Britain and, especially, the taxes on certain imported goods that Parliament imposed in the Townshend Acts. Boycotting goods imported from Britain previously contributed to repealing the Stamp Act. Colonists hoped a new round of nonimportation agreements would have a similar effect with the Townshend Acts.

Nonimportation may have been an opportunity rather than a sacrifice for Frazier and other merchants and shopkeepers. Imported goods glutted the American market. Frazier’s lengthy list of merchandise suggests he had surplus goods that he had not managed to sell for the better part of a year. Adhering to the nonimportation agreement made a virtue of selling goods that lingered on shelves and in storerooms for some time, goods that consumers might otherwise not have even considered purchasing. The politics of the periods sometimes provided convenient cover for merchants and shopkeepers to rid themselves of goods they had difficulty selling in a crowded marketplace.

September 3

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

Sep 3 - 8:31:1769 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (August 31, 1769).

“Orders from the country will be punctually answered.”

When William Wilson placed an advertisement about “a fresh Assortment of EUROPEAN and EAST-INDIA GOODS” in the August 31, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, he listed dozens of the items in his inventory. Wilson stocked everything from “Womens black Silk Gloves and Mitts” to “Steel Coffee-Mills” to “Coopers and Carpenters Adzes.” In addition to the merchandise that he named, he also carried “several other Articles, too tedious to enumerate.” As they contemplated their participation in the consumer revolution that was taking place throughout the British Atlantic world, Wilson invited colonists to imagine the vast array of goods he made available to them. He encouraged them to savor the choices.

Although Wilson addressed “his Friends and Customers,” his advertisement made clear that those “Friends and Customers” did not need to do their shopping in person at his store on Broad Street in Charleston. For those who lived some distance from the busy port, he pledged that “Orders from the Country will be punctually answered.” Customers who placed such orders could depend on the same level of service bestowed on patrons who visited Wilson’s shop. As a convenience to his customers, he offered a precursor to mail order or internet shopping.

That service made the extensive list of goods in Wilson’s advertisement even more imperative to operating his business. His notice in the South-Carolina Gazette doubled as a catalog for much of his merchandise, advising prospective customers “from the Country” which items they could order from afar. Wilson did not merely name items like “playing Cards” and “Womens and Girls Velvet Masks” to impress readers with the variety of goods in stock; instead, he provided a list that ranged from common items to unexpected novelties so customers placing orders became aware of the many possibilities. Wilson’s advertisement included clothing and textiles, accessories, housewares, hardware and tools, and groceries, signaling to those who could not examine the “several other Articles, too tedious to enumerate” that they had a good chance of a favorable response when submitting special requests not listed in his catalog of goods. This shopkeeper’s lengthy list was more than a conspicuous display of consumer goods; it was a critical element of a service he offered for those who wished to place “Orders from the Country.”

July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1769 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 28, 1769)

They will be Sold as cheap as at any Shop in Boston.”

Robert Robertson advertised a “large Assortment of English GOODS” available at his shop in Portsmouth in the July 28, 1769, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Samuel Bowles and Stephen Hardy advertised similar wares. All three listed dozens of items; collectively, their advertisements filled almost an entire column in that issue, presenting consumers with many choices. Prospective customers could choose among the merchandise, but they could also choose among the purveyors. To help them make those choices, Bowles and Robertson each described their prices as “very cheap.”

Robertson, however, did more than deploy a standard appeal to price. He concluded his advertisement with a nota bene that underscored the bargains at his shop: “As the above Goods are a Consignment to me, they will be Sold as cheap as at any Shop in Boston.” In making this pronouncement, Robertson acknowledged that he competed not only with Bowles and Hardy and other shopkeepers in Portsmouth but also with all of the merchants and shopkeepers not so far away in the largest and busiest port in New England. Their advertisements filled the pages of the several newspapers printed in that city that certainly found their way to Portsmouth. Robertson revealed that he expected at least some of his prospective customers engaged in comparison shopping, not only in Portsmouth but ranging farther away as well. He also suggested that consumers in New Hampshire had grown accustomed to paying higher prices than their counterparts in Massachusetts.

Merchants and shopkeepers sometimes proclaimed that they matched or beat the prices of their local competitors in the 1760s; only rarely did they address prices throughout an entire region or make comparisons to prices in other cities and towns. Robertson was innovative in that regard, but it may well have been innovation born of necessity if he suspected that he regularly lost business when colonists in New Hampshire visited Boston or sent away for goods supplied by the merchants and shopkeepers who resided there.

July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:17:1769 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (July 17, 1769).

“Almost every other Article common to a Shop, and too many to enumerate in an Advertisement.”

Thomas Green inserted a lengthy advertisement for “All Sorts of English, India, West-India, and Homespun Goods” in the July 17, 1769, edition of the Newport Mercury. Although the advertisement listed hundred of items available at his shop at the Sign of the Roe Buck, Green concluded with a note that he also carried “almost every other Article common to a Shop, and too many to enumerate in an Advertisement.” Prospective customers could hardly have doubted that this shopkeeper offered choices to suit their own tastes.

Green did “enumerate” so many items that his advertisement extended more than a column, which was relatively rare even for the most extensive list-style advertisements of the period. At a glance, however, it may not have looked as dense and difficult to navigate as other advertisements. The compositor, likely with instructions from Green, devised a unique format that gave much of the advertisement the appearance of a series of shorter notices. Each section concluded with a line that ran across the remainder of the column, creating a visual effect similar to the lines that separated notices from each other. In addition each new section commenced with one or two lines in a larger font, similar to the format for the headers for other advertisements. This technique highlighted particular goods for sale while also breaking this advertisement into shorter segments that readers could more easily peruse.

Compare Green’s advertisement to another lengthy advertisement in the same issue of the Newport Mercury. Gideon Sisson sold similar merchandise at his shop on Thames Street. His advertisement fell a few lines shy of filling an entire column. Below the header, it featured only two sections of equal length, approximately half a column each. Many readers likely found the format imposing compared to the inviting layout of Green’s advertisement. Sisson required prospective customers to work harder when examining his inventory of goods.

Without close examination, many readers may have found it difficult to determine where Green’s advertisement ended. Encountering a series of shorter segments forced readers whose attention fixed on any particular section to scan backwards until they determined that it was part of Green’s lengthy advertisement. This exposed them to the rest of the advertisement, sometimes repeatedly if they happened to note more than one section of Green’s advertisement as they made their way through the newspaper. Such reiterative viewing would have introduced prospective customers to even more merchandise Green stocked at the Sign of the Roe Buck while simultaneously underscoring the extent of the choices he presented to consumers.

The format of Green’s advertisement played an important role in introducing prospective customers to his wares and increasing the likelihood that they took notice of his advertisement. Copy and layout played off each other to increase the effectiveness of both.