February 14

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

Feb 14 - 2:14:1770 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (February 14, 1770).

“Messrs. JOHN SKETCHLEY, & Co.”

Robert Wells, the printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, apparently experienced a disruption in his paper supply in February 1770, perhaps as a result of the duties imposed on imported paper by the Townshend Acts. His newspaper usually featured four columns per page. The February 14 edition did have four columns per page, but the fourth column was narrower, with the contents rotated so that the text ran perpendicular to the other three. Printers and compositors often deployed this strategy when forced to print newspapers on paper of a different size than usual. It allowed them to insert as much content as possible while efficiently using type already set. Notably, advertisements that ran in the previous issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette comprised the entirety of the material rotated to fit on the page for the February 13 edition.

This evidence allows me to confidently state that Wells used broadsheets of two different sizes in February 1770. I cannot make this claim, however, as the result of comparing the actual dimensions of those sheets. The Adverts 250 Project relies primarily on databases of eighteenth-century newspapers that have been digitized to allow for greater access. Indeed, this project would not be possible without the resources made available by Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessible Archives’s South Carolina Newspapers, Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, and the Maryland State Archives’s Maryland Gazette Collection. Each of these databases allows for significantly enhanced access to the content of eighteenth-century newspapers. In the process, however, they negate some of the material aspects of those newspapers, including any indication of size. Each issue becomes the size of the computer screen or whatever size users make them as they zoom in and out to observe various details.

That means that readers must relay on visual cues to make determinations about the relative size of newspaper pages. This makes it impossible to compare, say, the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to the Connecticut Courant, but it is possible to make comparisons among various issues of a particular newspaper. The mastheads for the February 7 and February 14 editions of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette do not match. Wells or a compositor who worked in his printing office reset the type, adjusting the masthead to fit a smaller broadsheet. In combination with the advertisements rotated to fit a narrower fourth column, this confirms that Wells used a smaller sheet. Careful attention to the format reveals the reason for the unusual appearance of the February 14 issue, something that would have been readily apparent when examining the original copies. Scholars who rely on digital surrogates, however, have to develop strategies for making assessments about the relative sizes of pages and explain why printers and compositors made certain decisions about how to format advertisements and other content.

February 7

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

Feb 7 - 2:7:1770 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (February 7, 1770).

“He continues to follow the Business of an INSURANCE-BROKER.”

Like many colonists who placed newspaper advertisements, John Benfield did not confine his notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to a single purpose. Instead, he divided it into two portions, advancing separate business enterprises. Benfield opened with a recitation standard in advertisements for consumer goods. He gave his location and promised low prices before listing the various goods, mostly spirits and grocery items, for sale at his store. In the second portion of the advertisement, complete with a manicule to attract the attention of readers, he described a service, insurance, he provided to merchants who owned ships that passed through the busy port of Charleston. While these very different endeavors may have merited separate advertisements, that Benfield choose to combine them in a single notice testifies to the close reading of newspapers, even the advertisements, undertaken in eighteenth-century America. Benfield did not devise a separate advertisement about insurance with a distinct headline because he expected prospective clients would take note of both portions of the combined advertisement.

That did not prevent him from making a case for why merchants and others in the market to purchase insurance should allow him to provide that service. He declared that he “continues to follow the Business of an INSURANCE-BROKER,” establishing that he had experience in that capacity. Furthermore, he made an appeal to price, just as he had done for the goods available at his shop. Benfield declared that “Vessels, which are known in this Province to be staunch and good, with their Cargoes, may be insured here on as low Terms as they are in England.” He offered the convenience of purchasing insurance locally rather than having to communicate over long distances with brokers on the other side of the Atlantic. At a time when many colonists encouraged the production and consumption of “domestic manufactures” as a means a means of reducing dependence on goods imported from England, Benfield offered an alternative for a product offered in the service sector. He did not explicitly make this argument, but he may have expected prospective clients to draw their own conclusions considering the rhetoric about nonimportation and domestic production throughout the colonies in the wake of the Townshend Acts. Certainly some readers would have made the connection without prompting from Benfield, especially after carefully perusing the other contents of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.

January 31

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

Jan 31 - 1:31:1770 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (January 31, 1770).

“For SPAIN, PORTUGAL, LONDON … The SHIP MARY.”

Deciphering the copy in these advertisements may be difficult or even impossible, but the visual images remain as unmistakable in the twenty-first century as they would have been in the eighteenth century. A woodcut depicting a ship at sea adorned half a dozen advertisements, one following right after another, on the third page of the January 31, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. A similar but smaller fleet comprised of three vessels appeared on the first page of that issue. The pages of the newspaper replicated the scene that colonists glimpsed in Charleston’s busy harbor, vessels arriving from faraway ports and departing for new destinations throughout the Atlantic World. This visual imagery testified to the webs of exchange that crisscrossed the ocean and connected colonists in South Carolina to the rest of the continent, the Caribbean, England, mainland Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.

Both people and goods moved along those networks of exchange. Most of the notices featuring images of ships advertised “Freight or Passage.” Their captains stood ready to transport commodities cultivated in South America to markets on the other side of the Atlantic. Other advertisements listed vast assortments of consumer goods “imported in the last Vessels” from London, Bristol, and other English ports. Two advertisements on the same page as the larger flotilla featured images of enslaved men, women, and children, vivid reminders that not everyone who arrived in South Carolina migrated there voluntarily.

With their sails billowing and flags looking as if they were flapping in the wind, the woodcuts of the vessels at sea gave the appearance of motion. They testified to the bustling maritime traffic in one of the largest seaports in the colonies. They reminded readers of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette that even as they went about their daily lives and worried about their deteriorating relationship with Parliament that their corner of the empire was part of vast networks of commercial and cultural exchange that extended throughout the Atlantic and far beyond. The shipping news from the customs house provided a list of ports for readers to peruse, but the visual images in the advertisements, all those ships at sea, conjured much more vivid images that connected colonists to faraway places around the Atlantic and even around the globe.

December 13

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

Dec 13 - 12:13:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (December 13, 1769).

“GEORGE COOKE, & Co. Have imported … [illegible].”

The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project are made possible by databases of eighteenth-century newspapers that have been digitized in order to make them more accessible to scholars and other readers. Such databases have revolutionized the work done by historians, allowing them to ask – and answer – questions that would have been impractical or impossible to consider just a couple of decades ago. Various tools, including keyword searches that rely on optical character recognition, allow historians to streamline their research methods as they efficiently identify sources that otherwise would have been overlooked.

To some extent, the production of digital surrogates for primary sources has democratized the research process, making historical documents more widely accessible. Historians and other scholars no longer need to visit libraries, archives, and historical societies to gain access to original sources. Instead, they can access many of them (including eighteenth-century newspapers) from anywhere they have a reliable internet connection. This democratization of access to digital surrogates is sometimes limited by access to financial resources. Consider the databases consulted for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Colonial Williamsburg makes its database of eighteenth-century newspapers published in Virginia freely available to the public. Accessible Archives and Readex, however, have different business models for South Carolina Newspapers and America’s Historical Newspapers, respectively. Both are available only by subscription. Some institutions can afford access to those databases; others cannot. I am fortunate that my college has a subscription to America’s Historical Newspapers. I am also fortunate that Accessible Archives has an individual subscription option at a reasonable price. It provides limited access compared to an institutional subscription, but it is sufficient for my purposes and the projects I have designed.

Even though scholars and other users benefit from these databases, they also learn that accessibility does not necessarily mean legibility. In some instances, the original sources have been damaged, but in many others poor photography or other shortcomings of the remediation process produce digital surrogates that are accessible but not legible. Consider George Cooke and Company’s advertisement from the front page of the December 13, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Some of it is legible; other portions are not. An experienced reader can carefully work through much of the advertisement, filling in the gaps by considering both context and prior knowledge of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for consumer goods. Inexperienced readers would not derive nearly as much information from this advertisement, nor would keyword searches that rely on optical character recognition reach the same conclusions as a human reader.

Digitization has forever changed historical research methods, but digital surrogates do not replace original sources. Digital surrogates come with their own set of limitations that scholars must take into consideration. They make sources more accessible – sometimes. Both subscription fees and illegible remediations of original sources limit the usefulness of digital surrogates.

November 7

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

Nov 7 - 11:7:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette.jpg
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (November 7, 1769).

Subscriptions and ADVERTISEMENTS for this Paper … are gratefully received.”

Advertising accounted for half of the content in the November 7, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Readers encountered advertisements before any news or editorials; paid notices ran from top to bottom of the entire first column on the first page, with “EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE” filling the other three columns. News from Europe continued on the second page and spilled over onto the third, but three of the columns on that page consisted of advertising. Except for the colophon, advertising comprised all of the content on the final page.

Yet even the colophon served as an advertisement. It included far more than just the name of the printer and the place of publication. The South-Carolina and American General Gazette sported one of the most elaborate colophons in any newspaper published in the colonies in the 1760s: “CHARLESTON; Printed by ROBERT WELLS, at the Old Printing-House, Bookseller’s and Stationer’s Shop on the Bay where Subscriptions and ADVERTISEMENTS for this Paper, which is circulated through all the SOUTHERN COLONIES, are gratefully received; Also, ORDERS for BOOKS and STATIONARY WARES, of which a large Stock is constantly kept up, and, For all Kinds of PRINTING and BOOK-BINDING Work, which continue to be executed with Accuracy and Expedition, at the most reasonable Rates.” This colophon filled more space and contained more words than some of the advertisements for consumer goods and services that appeared in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.

Its placement at the bottom of the final page guaranteed that no matter the order of the other contents of the newspaper those who perused it start to finish, even if they did not read every item, concluded with an advertisement that promoted goods and services offered by the printer. Those services included printing more advertising in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, a good investment considering the reach of the newspaper. Wells informed prospective advertisers that his newspaper circulated far beyond Charleston and even beyond South Carolina. He did not, however, merely solicit advertisements and subscriptions for the newspaper. He also emphasized other goods and services. He accepted job printing orders. He sold stationery and books. As an ancillary service, he either bound books or employed a bookbinder.

The colophon could have been merely informational – “CHARLESTON: Printed by ROBERT WELLS” – yet the printer dramatically expanded it to engage both consumers and prospective advertisers who read the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. He exercised his privileges as the printer and his access to the press to promote his own business interests.

November 5

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

Nov 5 - 11:2:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (November 2, 1769).

“TWO large and compleat Assortments of Goods.”

In advertisements that appeared regularly in newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1760s, Atkins and Weston offered prospective customers the convenience of shopping at multiple locations. In an advertisement in the November 2, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, for instance, they advised consumers that they had “just imported … TWO large and compleat Assortments of Goods, one for their Store at STONO, and the other for their Store in CHARLESTOWN.”

That they described each shipment of goods as “large and compleat Assortments” communicated that they kept both shops well stocked rather than treating one as a satellite location that carried only the bare necessities. The shop in Stono was more than a mere outpost. Still, they did acknowledge that market considerations prompted them to make some items available at their Charleston location, in one of the largest and busiest ports in British mainland North America, which they did not carry at Stono. In particular, the inventory in Charleston included “a great variety of the most elegant and fashionable flowered and plain SILKS.” Atkins and Weston had been in business long enough, operating two stores, that they presumably figured out the most efficient means of distributing their merchandise given the market conditions at both locations.

Their advertisement testifies to the reach of the consumer revolution in eighteenth-century America. It extended beyond the largest urban ports and into the countryside. Atkins and Weston knew that there was a market for “large and compleat Assortments of Goods” outside of Charleston. With their advertisements, they also sought to stimulate even greater demand among consumers living outside of the colony’s largest city. Yet they also identified some items, the “flowered and plain SILKS,” as having the best prospect of selling in the city. Customers in Stono may have been able to send for samples to examine at that location, but Atkins and Weston concentrated their efforts for that merchandise at their urban location. Their advertisement operated at the intersection of convenience for customers and practicality for the vendors.

September 13

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

Sep 13 - 9:13:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (September 13, 1769).

“JAMES OLIPHANT, JEWELLER.”

When he moved to a new location in September 1769, jeweler James Oliphant ran an advertisement in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to inform prospective customers where to find him. In marketing his wares to consumers in Charleston, he provided a catalog of several services provided by colonial jewelers. In addition to making and selling jewelry, Oliphant “engraves and enamels a variety of patterns of motto rings and lockets, forms hair for them into cyphers, sprigs, flowers, trees, knots or another device.” He also “engraves coats of arms upon seals, plate,” and other items. As he listed these services he advanced some of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements. Clients acquired “the newest fashions” at his shop “upon the most reasonable terms.” Oliphant used fashion and price to encourage conspicuous consumption among “his friends and customers.”

While Oliphant’s advertisement gave an overview of the jewelry made and sold in his shop, it did not necessary reveal the contributions of every worker who labored there. Oliphant took credit for all items produced in his shop, but he may have had enslaved assistants who crafted “the newest fashions” and made it possible for him to charge “the most reasonable terms.” Another advertisement in the same issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette indicated that was the case for jeweler John-Paul Grimke. In a lengthy notice, Grimke announced his plans to retire. He scheduled an auction to liquidate his jewels, plate, watches, and other merchandise … as well as two “NEGRO BOYS” who worked in his shop. The two had been “brought up to the Jewellers Trade” and possessed many skills. They could “make Gold Rings and Buttons, engrave them very neatly, and do many other kinds of work.” Grimke offered a one-month trial period for prospective buyers who wished to assess their skills.

Throughout the eighteenth century, artisans who advertised products from their workshops often told incomplete stories about who made or contributed to making jewelry, furniture, shoes, or other items. Journeymen, apprentices, and enslaved laborers often worked alongside artisans who marketed everything produced in their shops as their own creations. Prior to his retirement, Grimke was the public face for his shop, but enslaved youth made significant contributions to his business. Oliphant did not disclose in his advertisement whether his business also benefited from the skilled labor of enslaved artisans. The “newest fashions” worn by the residents of Charleston may have been crafted, all or in part, by workers held in bondage.

August 30

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

Aug 30 - 8:30:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (August 30, 1769).

To be sold …”

Like most other newspaper published in the colonial era, a standard issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half. Robert Wells, the printer, distributed a four-page issue once a week. On occasion, however, Wells had too much content – news, editorials, advertisements, to include in the standard issue. In order to publish the latest intelligence and paid notices in a timely manner, he supplemented the standard issue with an additional sheet.

Such was the case with the August 30, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. It consisted of six pages, the standard four-page issue and another sheet with one page printed on either side. When other printers resorted to this means of increasing the length of an issue, many tended to distribute an additional half sheet that included a masthead that read “Supplement to the …” The half sheet thus matched the size of rest of the issue. It maintained the same format as the standard issue. Wells, on the other hand, distributed his supplemental pages on smaller sheets.

Consider the format of a standard issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Four columns spanned the page. The supplemental sheet that accompanied the August 30 edition did not bear a separate masthead. Instead, the title ran across the top, as it did on every page, and the numbering continued uninterrupted, making a date unnecessary. The additional sheet featured two columns that ran vertically and a narrower third column that rotated the text of the advertisements ninety degrees in order to make them fit on the page. Why do this? It avoided the time and effort of resetting type for notices that previously appeared in other issues. Wells and the compositor devised a system that allowed them to cover every square inch of the supplementary sheet with content. It avoided wasting any paper when they did not have enough content to fill an entire half sheet, especially important now that paper was in short supply due to the import taxes levied by the Townshend Acts. The supplemental sheet did not match the rest of the issue in its appearance, but it was an efficient way to circulate all the news and advertising received in Wells’s printing office that week.

Unfortunately, working with digital surrogates for the original sources does not allow for exact measurements of the standard issue and the supplementary sheet. Accessible Archives and its counterparts do not include that sort of metadata, in large part because it would be prohibitively expense to do so. The size of both sorts of pages – the standard issue and the supplement – appear the same when viewed in digital format, even though visual evidence demonstrates that the printer used sheets of very different sizes. Digitized primary sources allow for greater accessibility, but they cannot answer every question. Scholars and others must remember that digitized sources are supplements to, rather than replacements for, the original documents.

August 23

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

Aug 23 - 8:23:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (August 23, 1769).

“Several other articles too tedious to enumerate.”

Although male merchants and shopkeepers placed the vast majority of advertisements for imported consumer goods in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette and other newspapers published in Charleston in the 1760s, their female counterparts occasionally inserted advertisements as well. Given the number of women who earned their livelihoods as shopkeepers in the largest port cities, female entrepreneurs were disproportionately underrepresented when it came to advertising in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. Those who did advertise, however, tended to deploy the same marketing strategies as men rather than crafting commercial notices that made distinctive appeals based on their sex.

Such was the case for Frances Swallow. Except for her name and the pronouns, her advertisement did not differ from those placed by male competitors in the August 23, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. She made an appeal to price, stating that she sold her wares “on the most reasonable terms.” She also invoked current tastes more than once. She sold “ribbons of the newest fashion” and “continues to make up all kinds of MILLINERY, in the newest fashion.” Price and fashion, along with quality, were among the most commonly deployed marketing strategies in eighteenth-century newspapers.

Most significantly, Swallow’s advertisement emphasized consumer choice, another exceptionally popular marketing strategy of the period. Swallow produced a litany of goods equal in length to those published by her male competitors in the same issues. Indeed, Swallow’s list might be considered even more extensive because it consisted almost exclusively of textiles and millinery supplies, whereas most of the male advertisers listed those items along with housewares, hardware, and other items. To underscore the extent of the choices she presented to customers, Swallow concluded her list with a proclamation that she also carried “several other articles too tedious to enumerate.” This challenged readers who already envisioned the dozens of items she did describe to imagine what other merchandise did not appear on Swallow’s list.

Swallow specialized in retailing textiles and millinery ware. In marketing her goods, she adopted the same strategies as male merchants and shopkeepers who advertised all sorts of imported goods. She made appeals to price, fashion, and, especially, consumer choice to convince prospective customers to visit her shop.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1769 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (July 4, 1769).

“RUN away … two Negro Boys named GUY and LIMEHOUSE.”

American colonists engaged in a variety of resistance activities in response to new legislation passed by Parliament with the intention of better regulating the vast British Empire in the years after the Seven Years War concluded. Colonial legislatures passed resolutions asserting the rights of American and submitted petitions encouraging Parliament to reconsider. Merchants and shopkeepers organized nonimportation agreements, disrupting commerce as a means of achieving political goals. Extending those efforts, consumers boycotted goods imported from Britain. Many colonists also expressed their political views by participating in public demonstrations, some of them culminating in violence. The colonial press chronicled all of these efforts, contributing to the creation of an imagined community from New England to Georgia. Print culture played an important role in creating a sense of a common cause for many colonists.

Yet white colonists were not the only ones thinking about liberty and those were not the only means of seeking freedom. Enslaved Africans and African Americans did not need newspaper reports about petitions, nonimportation agreements, and public demonstrations to inform them of the ideals of liberty and the meaning of freedom. Many engaged in their own acts of resistance, seizing their own liberty by escaping from bondage. Such was the case for “two Negro Boys named GUY and LIMEHOUSE.” Late in the winter or early in the spring of 1769, these two young men decided to make their escape from Ralph Izard’s plantation. For weeks, Izard ran advertisements in South Carolina’s newspapers, including in the July 4, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. He offered a reward of ten pounds each for the capture and return of Guy and Limehouse, instructing that they should be delivered “to the Warden of [t]he Work-house in Charlestow[n].”

Other than their names (presumably names bestowed on the young men by their enslavers), Izard provided little information about the young men. He described them as “Boys,” but did not offer even an approximation of their ages. Izard indicated that he had purchased Guy and Limehouse from William Drayton, but did not report how much time had elapsed between that transaction and their escape. For at least a couple of months, the young men experienced freedom, though they likely never felt secure. Guy and Limehouse’s stories, as told by Izard, were exceptionally truncated compared to the stories they would have told about themselves. Still, their determination to free themselves demonstrates that the spirit of liberty was not confined to white colonists aggrieved over the actions of Parliament.

That spirit of liberty, however, existed in stark contrast to the realities of enslavement during the imperial crisis, throughout the American Revolution, and beyond. Advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children who attempted to seize their own liberty highlight that paradox of the American founding. Many historians address the tension between liberty and enslavement in the era of the American Revolution, both in projects intended mainly for their colleagues in the academy and projects intended to engage the general public. On July 4, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, the Adverts 250 Project seeks to add to that conversation by presenting the stories of enslaved people who made their escape from bondage at the same time that white colonists protested for their rights and freedom from figurative enslavement to Parliament. In addition to the stories of Guy and Limehouse, learn more about Caesar, advertised in the Providence Gazette on July 4, 1767, and Harry, advertised in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on July 4, 1768. Celebrations of Independence Day should acknowledge the complexity of American history and commemorate the courage and conviction of enslaved people who pursued their own means of achieving freedom in an era of revolutionary fervor.