August 2

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

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Virginia Gazette (August 1, 1766).

“Any Gentlemen may be supplied with the same … in Norfolk, and … in Williamsburg.”

Philip Watson sold “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” to customers in Shockoe, but that was not the only place in the colony that readers of the Virginia Gazette could purchase this product. Watson concluded his advertisement with a nota bene stating that “Any Gentlemen may be supplied with the same at Mr. Thomas Hepburn’s in Norfolk, and at Mr. James Southall’s in Williamsburg.”

The nota bene demonstrates two aspects of doing business in colonial Virginia. First, it points to the distribution of consumer goods, in this case “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” in particular. Watson knew that many readers of the Virginia Gazette would not find it practical to call on him in Shockoe, so he offered additional locations that carried the same product. In order to make as many sales as possible, Watson incorporated convenience as part of his customer service.

That Watson listed three locations in three towns also testifies to the reach of newspaper distribution in the 1760s in Virginia and other colonies. Newspapers did not serve just the city or town in which they were printed. They passed through networks of subscribers and other readers throughout the city or town’s hinterland and beyond. Even in colonies with multiple newspapers, they tended to be printed in just one city. As a result, advertisements reached far beyond the places where newspapers were printed. Philip Watson could confidently place an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, printed in the colony’s capital, and know that it would reach readers in Shockoe and Norfolk as well as Williamsburg.

As an aside, this advertisements also points to some of the difficulty using eighteenth-century names for towns. Where was Shockoe? Did Watson mean the relatively remote area that is currently an unincorporated community in Pittsylvania County? Probably not. It’s much more likely that he sold “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” in what became Richmond – on the James River, the colony’s main waterway and means of transporting tobacco and other goods – which now contains the neighborhoods of Shockoe Hill, Shockoe Slip, and Shockoe Bottom. As with many other aspects of eighteenth-century advertisements, contemporary readers needed no explanation of the location of Shockoe.

May 24

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

May 24 - 5:23:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (May 23, 1766).

“He continues to do business in the commission way.”

Thomas Hepburn was a broker who sold goods on consignment or, as he put it, he did “business in the commission way.” Rather than purchase and maintain his own stock, he sold merchandise that others supplied to him under an agreement that he would keep a portion of the proceeds from every sale. This minimized the risk of becoming overextended within the networks of credit that accompanied the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century; Hepburn did not lose any investment required to procure his merchandise.

What might Hepburn have sold? While it’s possible that he carried new merchandise, it seems more likely that he carried secondhand or used goods that colonists decided that they no longer wanted or needed for whatever reasons. Selling such items on commission facilitated a secondhand economy that permitted a greater number of colonists to participate in the consumer revolution that was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. The “baubles of Britain” that found their ways into the possession of so many colonists did not always take a direct path from British merchant to colonial shopkeeper to colonial consumer. Sometimes they passed from person to person or household to household, making detours through shops that did “business in the commission way.”