February 26

GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 20, 1769).

“Two Tierces of SUGAR of the first Quality.”

Sugar was a sought-after consumer good, closely associated with tea in the eighteenth century. Drinking tea with sugar was popular in colonial America, especially since the rituals resembled the lifestyle of Britons on the other side of the Atlantic. Everyone loved tea with sugar, but it is essential to look at where all the sugar came from.

The production of sugarcane, mostly by slaves in the Caribbean, increased throughout the eighteenth century. During this time, there was a shift from tobacco to sugar, according to B.W. Higman. In “The Sugar Revolution,” Higman states, “The six central elements of the sugar revolution are commonly regarded as a swift shift from diversified agriculture to sugar monoculture, from production on small farms to large plantations, from free to slave labour, from sparse to dense settlement, from white to black populations, and from low to high value per caput output.”[1] As part of the “sugar revolution,” the exportation of sugar from the Caribbean to mainland North America allowed colonists to live a life resembling the mother country. Slaves, the hands behind production, played a significant part in the expansion of colonial consumer culture. With high demand for sugar, slaves put in long hours on plantations to meet the needs of mass production. Enslaved labor boosted production to large-scale enterprises. It is safe to say slavery was a driving force in the success of the sugar industry. It is interesting how colonists set high demands for a good, such as sugar, to enhance their identity as British while allowing enslaved workers to be the means behind it. It shows how slavery was part of consumer culture even for colonists kept their hands clean by not owning slaves.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Joseph Russell advertised the “SUGAR of the first Quality” that prompted Chloe to consider the connections between slavery and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America. Russell, however, was neither a shopkeeper nor a merchant. Instead, he was an auctioneer who regularly advertised the various goods coming up for bids at his “Auction Room, in Queen-street.” In addition to the sugar slated to be sold “by PUBLIC VENDUE” (or auction), he also advertised “a variety of English GOODS.” Russell was not alone in his efforts to steer consumers to auctions rather than patronizing the many shops in Boston. Immediately above his advertisement, another notice, this one placed by John Gerrish, informed readers of an upcoming auction of “A fresh Assortment of GOODS” at “the Public Vendue-Office, North End.” Beyond Boston, other auctioneers also published newspaper advertisements to promote their establishments. Four of them – “Abeel & Neil’s VENDUE,” “M‘DAVITT’s Vendue House,” “MOORE & LYNSEN’s AUCTION-ROOM,” and “Nich. W. Stuyvesant, & Co’s. Vendue-House” – inserted notices in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury on the same day that Russell’s advertisement ran in the Boston Evening-Post.

Auctions presented additional opportunities for colonists to participate in the consumer revolution. Rather from visit shops or warehouses where they would have to haggle with shopkeepers and merchants in hopes of gaining the lowest prices, they could instead seek bargains at auctions. Auctioneers advertised in hopes of drawing crowds, hoping that would increase bids, but colonists knew that they could acquire goods below market value if bidding lagged. Gerrish’s advertisement indicated that his next auction consisted of “a great Variety of ARTICLES, both New, and Second hand.” For those who could not afford to purchase certain kinds of clothing, housewares, and other merchandise from merchants and shopkeepers, auctions allowed them to acquire secondhand items at reduced prices. Gerrish announced that the “Goods may be viewed before the Sale,” thus allowing prospective bidders to examine used items for wear, defects, and cleanliness in advance rather than forcing them to make decisions on the spot during the auction.

Russell’s auction of “a variety of English GOODS” likely included many items similar to those listed in Thomas Knight’s advertisement on the same page of the Boston Evening-Post. While Knight proclaimed that he was “determined to sell at the very lowest” prices, savvy consumers knew that they might get even better deals at an auction.

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[1] B.W. Higman, “The Sugar Revolution,” Economic History Review 53, no. 2 (May 200): 213

April 17

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 17 - 4:17:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“BEST London BOHEA TEA”

In this advertisement Henry Appleton promoted “BEST London BOHEA TEA.” According to Rachel Conroy at the Museum of Wales, “In the eighteenth century tea-drinking was a highly fashionable activity for the wealthy upper classes.” The idea that a drink initially denoted the elite is not surprising due to the exotic nature of the beverage. Tea was transported from China to England and then to the colonies, a notably long haul. Conroy also states “The most common tea was Bohea, a type of black tea.”

In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen indicates that tea drinking eventually became popular among a wide variety of social classes. As the eighteenth century progressed, more social classes also began to consume the beverage. To further demonstrate consumption across the classes, Breen brings up the political ramifications of the tea being sold. It became a major “bone of contention” for the colonists because of the new importation taxes on the product as part of the Townsend Acts in 1767. This led to one of the largest boycotts throughout the thirteen colonies and eventually to the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor. This advertisement examplifies how this product was sold far and wide in the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In addition to tea, Henry Appleton sold a variety of grocery items and “West India Good[s]” at “his Shop next Door to Robert Traill” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although he marketed the tea most vigorously – listing it first, describing it as “BEST,” and inserting a nota bene promising that “The above Tea is warranted of the best kind” – Appleton also sold “Loaf Sugar.” Consumers used sugar for many purposes. Sweetening tea was one of them, making it natural that the shopkeeper advertised the two together.

Jonathan mentions the political controversies that coalesced around tea in the decade before the Revolution. Colonists objected to new taxes and enforcement mechanisms, decrying their loss of liberty at the hands of Parliament. More than any other commodity, historians use tea to tell a powerful story of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution. In recent years many scholars have widened the scope of that story, effectively linking tea to other commodities associated with it, especially the “Loaf Sugar” that Appleton simultaneously peddled.

Consumers in colonial New Hampshire were fairly far removed from slavery practiced on the same scale as in the Chesapeake, Lower South, and Caribbean. A relatively small number of slaves lived in their towns (including “A likely Negro GIRL” offered for sale in an advertisement in the column to the right of Appleton’s notice), but the economy of colonial New Hampshire did not rely on the cultivation of staple crops on plantations, cultivation made possible by the productive labor of slaves.

Even though that was the case, colonists in New Hampshire were bound up in the system of slavery through commerce and their choices as consumers. The sugar they used to sweeten the tea they coveted resulted from the involuntary labor of enslaved men and women on faraway plantations. The social rituals that emanated from purchasing tea and ancillary goods, such as elaborate tea sets, rested on a foundation of enslaved labor in the cultivation of sugar. Even as Americans clamored for liberty in the face of Parliament meddling in colonial commerce, their consumer choices maintained an economic system that denied liberty to enslaved men and women who produced some of their most valued commodities.