What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The most strict Compliance with the Non-Importation Agreement.”
Colonial merchants and shopkeepers often included introductory remarks about the origins of their imported goods in their newspaper advertisements. In the April 15, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette, for instance, William Jones advertised goods “JUST IMPORTED In the Ship LYDIA, JAMES SCOTT, Master, from LONDON.” Similarly, Hugh Tarbett marketed goods “Imported in the Snow Jenny, Hector Orr, Master, from Glasgow.” Both followed a format familiar to both advertisers and readers. Samuel Eliot did so as well, announcing that he carried goods that he “has now IMPORTED in the Ships just arrived from LONDON.” Eliot added an additional note that he sold those goods “after a long Suspension of Business by his strict Adherence to the late Non Importation Agreement.” John Hancock did the same. Like Jones and several others who advertised in that issue, Hancock received goods via the Lydia. He proclaimed that he offered those items to customers “after the most strict Compliance with the Non-Importation Agreement during its Continuance.”
Eliot and Hancock both signaled their support of the patriot cause and suggested that consumers should purchase goods from them, now that trade with Britain commenced again, because they had faithfully obeyed the boycotts enacted in protest of duties imposed on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts. Hancock’s version of events, however, did not match coverage in the Boston Chronicle in the summer of 1769. The committee of merchants who oversaw compliance with the nonimportation agreement singled out John Mein, loyalist printer of the Boston Chronicle, for continuing to import and sell British goods. In turn, Mein published an exposé of prominent merchants who publicly claimed to support the nonimportation agreement yet continued to receive goods from Britain. On August 21, 1769, he listed the cargoes of several ships, the owners of those vessels, and the merchants who ordered and received the goods. That coverage included a “Manifest of the Cargo of the Brigantine Last Attempt, … Owner, JOHN HANCOCK,” a “Manifest of the Cargo of the Brigantine Lydia, … Owner, JOHN HANCOCK,” and a “Manifest of the Cargo of the Brigantine Paoli, … Owner JOHN HANCOCK.” Mein called on the “PATRIOTIC GENTLEMAN” who owned those vessels to provide the public with more information. Over the next two months, Mein continued his critique of Hancock and other patriot leaders. In late October, he published character sketches that included one for “Johnny Dupe,” a jab at Hancock for duping the public by continuing to profit from importing goods despite claiming to support the boycott. Not long after that, a mob attacked Mein. He fled Boston, leaving the Boston Chronicle in the hands of his partner, John Fleeming. The newspaper folded less than a year later.
Hancock’s claim that he sold an “Assortment of Goods” received from London only after “the most strict Compliance with the Non-Importation Agreement during its Continuance” was a polite fiction, at best. He attempted to deploy patriotism as part of his marketing strategy, asking supporters of the American cause to endorse his version of events despite evidence to the contrary published in the Boston Chronicle two years earlier. After all, that incident resulted in the disgrace and flight of a loyalist printer, not the prominent merchant and vocal supporter of the patriot cause. When it came to marketing, image mattered, perhaps even more than reality.
The Massachusetts Historical Society provides access to the August 21, 1769, edition of the Boston Chronicle via their online collections.