April 19

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (April 19, 1770).

“TO BE SOLD … the Sign, Counters, Shelves and Drawers, and all the Shop Utensils.”

For a while, Mrs. Willett kept the shop formerly operated by her deceased husband, Thomas Charles, open.  An advertisement that listed an extensive assortment of merchandise ran in the February 22, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal.  It also included a note that “The business is carried on as usual,” implicitly acknowledging the death of Willett’s husband.  Two months later, however, Willett closed down the entire enterprise and prepared to sail for Europe.  She placed another advertisement in the New-York Journal in April, that one calling on “All Persons who have any Demands on the said Thomas C. Willett” to present them for payment and “those few Customers” who had not yet settled accounts to do so before she departed.  She also warned that anyone who left “Rings, Buttons, Linen,” or other goods as collateral would forfeit them if they did not pay their debts.

In addition to settling accounts, Willett also announced an eighteenth-century version of a going out of business sale.  She aimed to get rid of everything.  In addition to selling her personal belongings, she also sold the remaining inventory of the shop “at first COST.”  Consumers might have found bargains, but Willett likely hoped to attract a buyer with an entrepreneurial spirit who also wished to acquire “the Sign, Counters, Shelves and Drawers, and all the Shop Utensils” necessary to set up business.  In the absence of many contemporary visual images of the interiors of shops in eighteenth-century America, Willett’s list conjures scenes of consumption.

It also reveals that visual images associated with particular merchants and shopkeepers could be transferred from one to another.  Willett did not invoke the name of the shop sign in either advertisement she placed in the New-York Journal, but she did consider it important enough to include (and list first) among the various equipment associated with the business.  In the April 19 edition, her advertisement appeared on the same page as one of Gerardus Duyckinck’s notices featuring an elaborate woodcut that incorporated a depiction of his “Sign of the Looking Glass & Druggist Pot.”  Over the course of several years, the Looking Glass and Druggist Pot most certainly became associated with Duyckinck’s business among residents of New York.  It served as a logo of sorts that made for easy identification of his business.  Even without a similar constant reiteration in the public prints, the sign marking the Willett shop most likely became similarly recognizable to colonists who traversed the streets of the busy port.  Willett did not name the sign associated with her shop, but she considered it a valuable enough marketing tool to include among the fixtures available for purchase.  The image would no longer be affiliated with the Willett family; instead, it would come to represent another enterprise in New York’s marketplace.

February 25

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

Feb 25 - 2:22:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (February 22, 1770).

“The Best accounts of fashions have been sent over by every packet.”

Thomas Charles Willett listed “A Great Variety” of garments, textiles, adornments, and accoutrements in the advertisement he placed in the New-York Journal in February 1770.  He stocked everything from “scarlet cloth cloaks” to “Striped Lutestrings” to “French pearl, garnet and jet necklaces and ear rings” to “Italian hair powder.”  He concluded his catalog of merchandise with “Bonnets and other fashionable goods.”  In his line of business, fashion mattered, especially his ability to convince prospective customers that he was familiar with the latest fashions and would offer appropriate guidance as they made their selections.

To that end, Willett made a special appeal at the conclusion of his advertisement.  He informed potential clients that “the best accounts of fashions have been sent over by every packet.”  In other words, the vessels that sailed from London and other English ports to New York delivered news of the latest fashions to Willett.  He may have maintained correspondence with friend and business associates in London, the cosmopolitan center of the empire, or received magazines with descriptions of the latest tastes.  Regardless of his source, Willett had his eye on the other side of the Atlantic … and he expected that prospective customers did as well.

This stood in stark contrast to the political ideology of the period that called for boycotting goods imported from England.  In protest of the duties leveled on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea in the Townshend Acts, merchants, shopkeepers, and other signed nonimportation agreements.  They pledged not to do business with their counterparts in England until Parliament repealed the duties, just as the Stamp Act had been repealed.  That did not prevent Willett and other retailers from selling goods ordered or delivered before the nonimportation pact went into effect, not did it prevent consumers from looking to England when they wished to display their own gentility and cosmopolitanism.  Willett stocked a variety of textiles and adornments.  How were they to be transformed into garments and combined together to make a statement?  As the answer to that question changed, Willett offered assistance from “the best accounts of fashions” he continued to receive.  He imported information for his customers to consume even when they collectively declined to import or purchase goods.