April 8

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

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

Providence Gazette (April 8, 1769).

“A MEAL-MARKET.”

When I first looked at this advertisement, the phrase “MEAL-MARKET” was foreign to me. According to Oxford English Dictionary “meal” means processed grains, as in “the edible part of a grain … ground to powder” or “the finer part of ground grain.” Bucklin and Peck obtained the processed grain, such as “Wheat Flour, Rye and Indian Meal,” from millers. They also sold “Virginia Corn, and Ship Bread.”

George Washington also worked with millers. According to the historians at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, he moved away from the tobacco and began to plant more grains, mostly wheat and corn in the 1760s. Washington then expanded his gristmill and with that it became more efficient and effective and the revenue started to increase. In order to have an efficient and effective gristmill he had to set up the mill next to a reliable flowing water source. This was key because in order to power the mill water must flow past the waterwheel to generate power. When Washington did have success with his mill he then brought in extra revenue by charging neighboring farmers a fee to grind their grain.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Bucklin and Peck made several promises to prospective customers in their advertisement in the April 8, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. They pledged that they would “sell as cheap as they can possible afford, do Justice in Weight and Measure, and, for the Accommodation of the Public, will retail the smallest Quantities that shall be desired.” The second of those appeals – “do Justice in Weight and Measure” – was especially important. It addressed a complaint leveled against millers that went back centuries.

In “Mills and Millers in Old and New World Folksong,” Jessica Bank explains that both the technology of mills and milling and folk songs about millers crossed the Atlantic from Britain to the colonies. Notorious for short-weighting the grains they processed, millers were depicted in depicted in folk songs as “selfish grasping thie[ves] who take advantage of anyone [they] can.” Millers had a reputation for refusing to operate their mills in the presence of their customers, a strategy that allowed them to cheat on the weights and measures. Bank notes that the popular expression “Keep your nose to the grindstone” originally had a second imperative, “and keep your eye to the road,” derived from the practice of ceasing operations of a mill as long as customers were in view.

“The image of the shifty, untrustworthy miller who enriches himself by stealing from those who use his mill to grind their grain,” Bank explains, “appears to have been incredibly long-lived and widely-known, appearing in a number of the folksongs that made their way to Colonial America.” Given that this image of the miller was so prevalent in eighteenth-century popular culture, Bucklin and Peck made a wise decision to address it in their advertisement offering “Wheat Flour, Rye and Indian” for sale. Their other appeals – low prices and the convenience of quantities that suited the needs of their customers – were standard marketing strategies adopted by many advertisers, but proclaiming that they “do Justice in Weight and Measure” was specific to their occupation. Bucklin and Peck understood the suspicion leveled against millers and those who sold the products of their mills; they crafted their advertisement accordingly.

March 28

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

Mar 28 - 3:28:1768 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 28, 1768).

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY.”

John Gerrish was one of several auctioneers who sold goods “by PUBLIC VENDUE” in Boston in the late 1760s. He regularly advertised in the city’s newspapers, as did Elias Dupee and Joseph Russell. Residents recognized their establishments by name: Gerrish ran the “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE, NORTH END,” Russell operated the “Auction-Room in Queen-Street,” and Dupee sold goods at the “NEW AUCTION ROOM.” In their competition for clients and bidders, all three inserted notices concerning upcoming auctions in the March 28, 1768, edition of the Boston-Gazette. Each offered a short description of items coming up for sale within the next couple of weeks, but Gerrish supplemented his brief overview with an additional appeal to prospective clients who wished to place items up for bidding.

“Whoever Employs the said GERRISH,” he proclaimed, “may depend upon his Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders – and remitting the Neat proceeds immediately, after they are Sold, deliver’d, and paid for.” Gerrish’s clients “shall be faithfully served by him.” Dupee, Russell, and Gerrish periodically offered such assurances in their advertisements, but Gerrish made a point of it in the spring of 1768 since he and Dupee had recently been involved in a public dispute, waged in their newspaper advertisements, that highlighted the potential for disreputable behavior by vendue masters who might not always act in the best interests of their clients.

In stressing his “Faithfulness in Selling their Goods FAIRLY to the Highest Bidders,” Gerrish addressed suspicions of collusion. His clients did not need to worry that he would attempt to rig sales to benefit his friends and associates looking to acquire goods for even better bargains than auctions might otherwise yield. The typography underscored this point: an examination of other advertisements in the same issue suggests that the compositor did not choose to capitalize “FAIRLY” or use italics for “Faithfulness” and “Highest Bidders” (as well as “Trustees” in a list of potential clients that included “Gentlemen Strangers, Passengers, [and] Factors”).

Consigning goods to an auctioneer required trust. Gerrish encouraged potential clients to deliver items they wished to sell to the Public Vendue Office in the North End rather than the Auction Room in Queen Street or the New Auction Room by pledging that he conscientiously worked to garner the highest proceeds and remitted them in a timely manner. He did not just offer a service; he built relationships that also enhanced his reputation.

January 21

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

Jan 21 - 1:21:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 21, 1768).

“PUBLIC VENDUE, At the NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.”

Auctioneer John Gerrish inserted advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette to encourage residents of Boston and its environs to buy and sell at his “Public Vendue-Office” in the North End. His upcoming auctions included “A great Variety of Articles, — lately imported,” including “Mens Apparel,” a “Variety of Callimancoes,” and “a Parcel of well-made, exceeding stout P. JACKETS and Breeches, very suitable in the present Season for Fishermen.” In addition to new merchandise, he also auctioned “Second hand Articles.” This selection matched the inventories listed in advertisements for shops and other auction houses in local newspapers.

To convince both buyers and sellers to do business at his establishment, Gerrish asserted that the experience would compare favorably to commercial transactions conducted elsewhere in the urban port. “All Sorts of Goods sell full as well at the North End,” he proclaimed, “as in King-Street, Queen-Street, or any other Street, or Auction Room in Boston.” In a bustling city, readers had many choices when it came to venues for buying and selling consumer goods. Gerrish did not want them to dismiss the North End out of hand.

The “Public Vendue Master” also underscored that buyers and sellers could depend on fairness when they made their transactions at the “NORTH END Vendue OFFICE.” Realizing that some readers might indeed have preferences for familiar shops and auction houses elsewhere in the city, he strove to bolster his reputation by assuring potential clients and customers that they had nothing to lose if they instead chose his vendue office. Those who decided to “Employ the Master of said Vendue Office” could “depend upon His Fidelity,” trusting that he made every effort to market their merchandise prior to the auction and encourage the highest possible returns during the bidding. Invoking his “Fidelity” also suggested that he kept accurate books and did not attempt to cheat sellers, especially those who could not be present at an auction to witness the bidding. Yet he also served those looking to make purchases, stressing that “all BUYERS may depend upon never being IMPOSED upon in said Vendue Office.” Gerrish pledged not to unduly pressure prospective customers who attended his auctions. Even as he worked as an intermediary who executed exchanges between buyers and sellers, he wanted each to feel as though they ultimately remained in charge of their commercial transactions rather than relinquishing control to potential manipulation on his part.

John Gerrish, Public Vendue Master, did more than merely announce that he conducted auctions in Boston’s North End. He encouraged both buyers and sellers to participate by instilling confidence in the process, promising that he faithfully served them. Colonists had many choices when it came to acquiring and selling consumer goods. Gerrish used his advertisement to assure them that doing business at his auction house was an option well worth their consideration.

January 4

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

jan-4-131767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (January 3, 1767).

“FOUND … a Silver Knee Buckle.”

Lost and found notices frequently appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers. Colonists not only purchased consumer goods; they sometimes misplaced their possessions and placed advertisements in hopes of reclaiming them. Colonists who found lost items also sometimes helped to reunite them with their owners. Such was the case in today’s advertisement: Elihu Robinson announced that he had “FOUND” a silver knee buckle “in the Main Street, Providence,” a week earlier on December 27. He wanted to return it to its owner, but only once the owner paid “the Charge of advertising.”

That would have been the extent of most lost and found notices, but Robinson opted to add a few lines about the business he operated. He reminded former customers “and the Public in general” that he made “Beaver, Beaveret, and Felt Hats” at his shop. In the process, he incorporated an appeal to price, stating that he was “determined to sell as cheap for Cash, as any in Boston, New-York, or any Person in this Town.” In so doing, he followed a recent trend in advertisements published in the Providence Gazette by expressing concern that too many local consumers purchased their goods from shopkeepers, artisans, and suppliers in other urban ports in the region, especially the larger and more bustling cities of Boston and New York. In another advertisement in the same issue, shopkeeper James Green pledged that he sold his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” More so than in any other colony, advertisers in Rhode Island encouraged prospective customers to shop locally.

Robinson’s advertisement may appear disjointed at first glance. The headline in a larger font, “FOUND,” described a silver knee buckle, but most of the advertisement promoted the hats Robinson made and sold at his shop and promises about low prices. Although seemingly unrelated, the lost-and-found notice served an important purpose. Robinson signaled to customers that they could trust his claims about offering lower prices than anywhere else in Providence or other cities because he was such an honest man that he attempted to return a silver knee buckle that he found in the street to its rightful owner. Many eighteenth-century advertisers assured readers about the quality of their character. Elihu Robinson provided a practical demonstration. Customers could trust him.