January 13

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

Jan 13 1770 - 1:13:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 13, 1770).

“The COLLEGE about to be built in this Colony.”

Providence, Rhode Island, is now known as the home of Brown University, but that is not where the university has always been located. In 1770, six years after its founding, Providence became the permanent home of what was known as the Rhode Island College in its early years, later Brown University, in 1770. In March 1764, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved the charter for the “College or University in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” The Rhode Island College was only the seventh college founded in the colonies. Founded by Baptists, admission to the college was open to students of other denominations. According to “Brown’s History: A Timeline” on the university’s website, the corporation that would run the new college first met in Newport in September 1764. At that meeting, “Rhode Island Governor Stephen Hopkins (who would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence) was elected Chancellor.” James Manning served as the first president of the college, from 1765 until his death in 1791. He was also the college’s “first (and initially only) professor. He offered classes in the parsonage of the Baptist Church in Warren. The college held its first commencement in Warren in September 1769, not long before moving to Providence.

In preparation, Stephen Hopkins and John Brown, acting “in Behalf of the Committee for providing Materials and overseeing the Work” of erecting an edifice for the college in the city placed an advertisement in the January 13, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette to request that those who had already pledged funds and others who might be inclined to do so consider donating “such Materials fit for the Building, as they would choose to furnish in Lieu of their Subscriptions.” The move to Providence was not a foregone conclusion, but such “Materials fit for the Building” and “Subscriptions” had helped to convince the Corporation. According to the “Brown’s History: A Timeline,” Warren, Newport, and other communities in Rhode Island vied to become the permanent home of the college; the members of the Corporation “heard arguments in favor of the city’s central location, availability of materials and workers, number of libraries, and money pledged to support the effort.” The newspaper notice placed by Hopkins and Brown incorporated two of those factors. A variety of primary sources tell the story of the founding and first years of the Rhode Island College. Among those, newspaper advertisements testify to some of the fundraising efforts undertaken to establish the college in the city that has now been its home for 250 years.

December 2

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

Dec 2 - 12:2:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 2, 1769).

“The Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen.”

Several advertisements relayed stories of theft in the December 2, 1769, edition of the Providence GazetteEach had previously appeared, but the thieves had not been captured nor had the stolen goods been recovered.  In a notice dated October 17, Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of a cloak and wig.  Hall and Metcalf placed their own notice, dated November 4, to report that their shop “was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.”  Jabez Bowen, Sr., even deployed a headline for his advertisement: “A THEFT.”  Dated November 11, Bowen’s notice listed several items of clothing stolen when his house was “broke open.”  By December 2, the stories in these advertisements became familiar to readers of the Providence Gazette.

The thefts in these advertisements may have helped to shape the contents of other parts of the newspaper. The December 2 edition began with an item addressed to the printer of the Providence Gazette.  “At a Time when Houses, Shops and Warehouses, are so frequently broke open,” an unnamed correspondent proclaimed, “and so many Thefts and Robberies are committed, both in Town and Country, by wicked vagrant Persons, unlawfully strolling about from Place to Place, perhaps it may tend to the public Good … in your next Paper to insert the following LAW concerning VAGRANTS, that it may be more generally known.”  A statute then filled the remainder of the column, excepting two lines announcing that the printer sold blanks.

Not only did advertisements seem to influence coverage of the news, the inclusion of this law helped establish a theme that ran through the entire issue.  Readers who perused it from start to finish first encountered the statute on the first page, Bowen’s notice and Hopkins’s notice on the third page, and Hall and Metcalf’s notice on the final page.  Even if they passed over the statute quickly, encountering the advertisements about thefts may have prompted some readers to return to the first page to read the statute more carefully.  The featured advertisements often demonstrate that news items and advertisements informed each other when it came to the imperial crisis and nonimportation agreements; however, those were not the only instances of advertisements relaying news or working in tandem with news.  Other sorts of current events inspired coverage that moved back and forth between news and advertising in colonial newspapers.