What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.”
Like several other merchants and shopkeepers in colonial Charleston, John Davies advertised in more than one of the city’s newspapers. A variation of today’s advertisement from the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for instance, previously appeared in both that newspaper and the South-Carolina and American General Gazette a month earlier. This version added a nota bene informing potential customers that Davies had augmented his stock with “A very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” On their own, these updates deceptively suggested that consumers could acquire merchandise fresh off a ship that had just arrived in port.
Those who consulted the shipping news, however, discovered a rather different story. No ship under the command of a Captain Gordon had arrived in port during the past week, so the nota bene did not deliver the absolutely “freshest Advices” promised in the newspaper’s masthead. Indeed, the June 30 issue indicated that the “Ship Mary, James Gordon” from London had arrived on June 26, nearly a month before today’s advertisement promoted the “very great Variety of new Articles, just arrived in Capt. Gordon.” In that issue, Davies’ advertisement appeared immediately to the left of the shipping news. Readers could verify the information communicated in the larger font used for the nota bene with a quick glance. Davies and the compositor had speedily updated the advertisement.
The revised notice appeared in the next three issues, the verity of the nota bene reduced with each passing week. Careful readers of the July 21 issue would have noticed that Captain Gordon and the Mary had been cleared for departure and a return trip to London by the Customs House on July 18. Careful readers would have also recognized Davies’ advertisement from previous issues, realizing that the information in the nota bene needed to be tempered by acknowledging that the notice had been reprinted several times over the past month. Such careful attention to the shipping news likely would not have been necessary for potential customers to approach this advertisement with some skepticism. Readers were accustomed to advertisements being reprinted for weeks and sometimes months. They would have learned to adjust their expectations when advertisers made claims about goods that had “just arrived” or had been “just imported.”