What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Sago Powder will be of great utility at seas as well as on shore.”
At the end of November 1768, Samuel Bowen placed an advertisement promoting the “SAGO POWDER, SOY, and VERMICELLI” he cultivated and produced on several tracts of land near Savannah. He divided his advertisement into several parts, each with its own purpose. First, the prominent entrepreneur touted the accolades his products had earned. Next he described the use of sago powder. Then he offered a recipe for preparing “Sago Jelly.” Finally, after enticing prospective customers to purchase his products, he informed them of the prices and where to buy them.
By the time he placed this advertisement Bowen was a noted entrepreneur. In 1758, he traveled to India and China aboard vessels belonging to the East India Company. Little is known of the four years he spent in China beyond vague comments made by Bowen himself. He claimed to have been imprisoned for nearly four years, during which time he was moved from place to place in the interior of the country. He reappeared in London in late 1763, before heading to Georgia in 1764. Upon arriving in the colony he purchased tracts of land and commenced farming. Running short of land of his own to cultivate, he convinced Henry Yonge, the colony’s Surveyor General, to plant seeds Bowen had brought from China. That was the introduction of soybean cultivation in America.
Bowen traveled to London in the spring of 1766 and returned in the fall. His prominence as an entrepreneur increased, having received a gold medal from the Society of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce in London as well as present of two hundred guineas from George III. Bowen referenced these honors in his advertisement, perhaps considering them particularly important in promoting crops and products not native to Georgia and perhaps unfamiliar to many colonial consumers. He also noted these laurels as evidence that his sago powder, soy, and vermicelli were indeed “equal in goodness to those articles usually imported into Great-Britain by the East-India Company.”
In this advertisement, Bowen focused primarily on marketing sago powder. He did not, however, cultivate sago palms but instead substituted sweet potatoes. Despite his best efforts to promote his sago powder as a “wholesome nourishing food,” T. Hymowitz and J.R. Harlan report that it was more likely used “as packing material for the export of Wedgwood china from London to India.” Bowen’s product found a place in the consumer economy, but not the one he intended.
Still, some readers of the Georgia Gazette may have acquired Bowen’s sago powder with the intention of making the “Sago Jelly” from the recipe in the advertisement or otherwise using it for the purposes Bowen prescribed. He noted that the “light and nourishing substance” was “proper for fluxes and other disorders in the bowels, also in consumptive and ma[n]y other cases.” Bowen’s sago powder, soy, and vermicelli were “Sold at the Collector’s.” Eighteenth-century readers knew this referred to William Spencer, the Collector of Customs in Savannah. Spencer also happened to be Bowen’s father-in-law.
This overview of Bowen’s entrepreneurial activities draws from an article by Hymowitz and Harlan. For more on Bowen, see T. Hymowitz and J.R. Harlan, “Introduction of Soybean to North America by Samuel Bown in 1765,” Economic Botany 37, no. 4 (October-December 1983): 371-379.