May 11

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

Providence Gazette (May 11, 1771).

“N.B. They have just received by the Ship Providence, Capt. Gilbert, a large and compleat Assortment of European and East India GOODS.”

The arrival of the Providence in Providence on May 1, 1771, was good for business for John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette.  Captain Phineas Gilbert brought a variety of information that quickly found its way into the town’s only newspaper.  He delivered newspapers from London and letters from distant correspondents to Carter.  In turn, the printer selected excerpts for publication in the Providence Gazette.  He also published updates about the progress made by several vessels the Providence encountered during its transatlantic voyage.

In addition to news, the Providence also generated advertising.  Merchants quickly placed advertisements announcing that they stocked consumer goods “JUST IMPORTED from LONDON … In the Ship Providence.”  John Brown made that pronouncement in the May 4 edition.  Joseph Russell and William Russell also advertised that Captain Gilbert delivered a “large Assortment of GOODS” to them.  A week later, several other entrepreneurs placed similar notices in the Providence Gazette.  The advertising section in the May 11 edition commenced with notification from “Nicholas, Joseph& Moses Brown, In Company” that they had “imported in the Ship Providence, Capt. Gilbert, a great Variety of English and India GOODS.”  Thurber and Cahoon made the same appeal, adding a nota bene to an advertisement that previously ran in the Providence Gazette.  The new copy asserted that Thurber and Cahoon “have just recently received by the Ship Providence, Capt. Gilbert, a large and compleat Assortment of European and East India GOODS.”  Nathaniel Wheaton did not mention the Providence in his new advertisement, but he did declare that he “just imported from London” an assortment of merchandise that he offered to “the Gentlemen and Ladies both of Town and Country.”  Most likely the Providence transported his goods.  Not all entrepreneurs who placed such advertisements had shops in Providence. Richard Matthewson of East Greenwich promoted goods he received via the Providence, noting that he set prices “as cheap as any in the Colony.”

While Carter certainly welcomed any news that Captain Gilbert carried, he likely appreciated the goods and, especially, the advertisements they inspired even more.  After all, he regularly reprinted news from London that appeared in newspapers published in Boston.  That allowed him to satisfy subscribers, but it did not generate additional revenue.  The number of advertisements for consumer goods in the Providence Gazette significantly increased after the Providencearrived in port and delivered its cargo to merchants and shopkeepers.  That meant both additional content and greater revenue for the newspaper.

October 8

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

Oct 8 - 10:8:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 8, 1768).


Thurber and Cahoon placed a new advertisement in the October 8, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette.   The partners promoted a “new and general Assortment of English and India GOODS, Imported in the last Ships from London and Bristol.” They listed some of that merchandise in a two short paragraphs, one for textiles and trimmings and the other for hardware. They also informed prospective customers about the location of their store at “the Sign of the BUNCH of GRAPES,” across the street from their houses in “the North End of Providence.”

Yet not all of the contents of their advertisement provided information intended for readers and consumers. The final line included a notation in brackets – “[48—6W.]” – intended to aid the compositor when laying out the pages of subsequent issues. The printers also likely referred to that notation in the course of their own bookkeeping. The “48” revealed that the advertisement first appeared in issue number 248. The “6W” presumably indicated that it was supposed to run for six weeks before being discontinued.

Several other advertisements concluded with issue numbers that corresponded with when they first appeared in the Providence Gazette. John White’s advertisement for candles and soap, for instance, listed “(46)” on the final line. Similarly, prolific advertisers Joseph Russell and William Russell inserted a notice about their “neat and fresh Assortment of GOODS” that also stated its initial issue number, “(47).” None of those advertisements, however, included any indication of their intended duration, but “6W” did apparently mean six weeks. Thurber and Cahoon’s advertisement ran in the next five issues, appearing for the last time in the November 12 edition. It moved from column to column and page to page, but the notation apparently served its purpose in reminding the compositor when to remove the advertisement.

The Providence Gazette was not the only newspaper that inserted such notations into advertisements in the colonial era. Throughout the colonies compositors and printers used this device to facilitate operating their publications. Readers may have taken note and decoded the notations on their own, but they were not the primary audience for those portions of the advertisements.

January 9

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

Jan 9 - 1:9:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 9, 1768).

“At their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.”

Benjamin Thurber and Daniel Cahoon informed residents of Providence and its hinterland that they had formed a partnership in an advertisement that ran in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1767. In their initial notice the shopkeepers emphasized their retail space, trumpeting that they “have built and compleated the best and largest Shop and Store in Providence.” They also proclaimed that they had “furnished it with a very large and general Assortment of the very best of English and India Piece Goods, Hard Ware, all Sorts of West-India Goods, and Groceries of all Kinds.”

In their subsequent advertising Thurber and Cahoon turned to demonstrating the extent of their inventory, listing dozens of items available for purchase “at their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.” Just as they claimed to operate the largest shop in town, their advertisement occupied the most space in the January 9, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, although it had been rivaled by Jonathan Russell’s advertisement in the previous issue. Thurber and Cahoon may have been motivated, in part, by Russell’s lengthy advertisement and its extended run in their local newspaper. It commenced in mid November, shortly after they announced their partnership, and continued for eight weeks, disappearing from the pages of the Providence Gazette after the first issue of the new year. Thurber and Cahoon may have determined that they needed to place an advertisement of similar length to challenge Russell and to remind potential customers of the size of their shop, supposedly the largest in Providence.

Their advertisement extended nearly three-quarters of a column, twice the length of the next longest advertisement in the January 9 issue. It also featured unique typography. Rather than list their wares in a single continuous and dense paragraph, they instead enumerated one or tow items per line and created two narrower columns within the single column that contained their advertisement. Not only did this typographical strategy make their notice appear even longer, it may have conjured up rows of shelves in their shop, suggesting how much space Thurber and Cahoon made available for customers to leisurely browse through their merchandise. By comparison, the other advertisements in the same issue looked much more cramped, implying that their shops were equally crowded and difficult to navigate.

Thurber and Cahoon used the amount of space on the page and design elements to their advantage when they placed their advertisement in the Providence Gazette. Although they echoed many of the same appeals to price, quality, and service that appeared in other commercial notices, the typography set their advertisement apart and buttressed the claims they made to potential customers.