November 15

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

Nov 15 - 11:12:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (November 12, 1767).

“A large ASSORTMENT of STATIONARY.”

Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement reveals several aspects of consumer culture, commercial exchange, and everyday life in colonial America, yet when considered alone it tells only a partial story of print culture and advertising practices in the eighteenth century. When disembodied from the rest of the newspaper in which it appeared, this advertisement does not fully communicate how readers would have interacted with its visual aspects. Viewers get a sense of the typography – different font sizes, the selective use of italics and capitals, and the deployment of white space – but cannot compare those details to their treatment in other advertisements. Only in examining the entire page or the entire issue does the full significance of the typographical choices become apparent.

When viewing Purdie and Dixon’s notice in isolation, it would be natural to consider the size of the font throughout most of the advertisement to be the standard or default size. The quasi-headline “STATIONARY” stands out not only because it appeared in italics and capitals but especially because the compositor chose a font significantly larger than that used for the remainder of the text. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that font size replicated what was used in other advertisements in the same issue. Throughout the rest of the newspaper, both advertisements and news items appeared in a significantly smaller font, making them appear more dense and more difficult to read. By printing their advertisement in a larger font, Purdie and Dixon called special attention to it.

In addition, this advertisement occupied a privileged place in the November 12, 1767, edition of the Virginia Gazette. The four-page issue featured slightly over one page of news items; advertisements filled nearly three pages. About one-third of a column of news flowed onto the second page before a header for “Advertisements” indicated the purpose of the remaining content. Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement, with its larger font, appeared at the top of the second (and middle) column on the second page. This positioned it at the head of the first full column devoted to advertising, practically implying that the advertisements began there rather than at the header (printed with much smaller type). As a result of these typographical decisions, readers turning from the first to second page likely noticed Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement before their gaze landed anywhere else. Any readers who intended to continue perusing the news could hardly help but notice “STATIONARY” immediately to the right of what little news appeared on the second page. (Purdie and Dixon may have been especially keen to sell as much stationery as quickly as possible since the Townshend Act, which assessed new duties on imported paper, was scheduled to go into effect just eight days after their advertisement appeared.)

While it may be tempting to dismiss all of this as circumstantial, keep in mind that Alexander Purdie and John Dixon printed the Virginia Gazette. While they may not have set the type themselves, the compositor would have acted on their behalf as the publishers of the newspaper. The typography benefited their business interests in particular, an element that gets lost when viewing just their advertisement but not the entire page or the rest of the issue in which it appeared. As printers, they exercised power over what appeared in their publication, but they also exercised privilege in the presentation of the selected contents.

To examine the entire issue of the Virginia Gazette, visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library.

October 15

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

Oct 15 - 10:15:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (October 15, 1767).

“MILLINERY … supplied on the shortest notices, by … M. and J. HUNTER.”

At a glance, this advertisement for a “GENTEEL ASSORTMENT of MILLINERY” placed by M. and J. Hunter in the October 15, 1767, issue of the Virginia Gazette seems to obscure the participation of women in the marketplace – and in the public prints – as retailers and producers, at least to modern readers who do not possess the same familiarity with Williamsburg in the 1760s as residents of the period.

Only upon close reading of the second paragraph does it become clear that M. and J. Hunter, the “humble servants” who imported and sold “all the materials for making hats and bonnets,” were women. Since milliners often tended to be women, some readers might have made this assumption as soon as they spotted the word “MILLINERY” in large, bold letters. Yet male shopkeepers and merchants, even if they did not work as milliners themselves, also imported, advertised, and sold millinery supplies to milliners and the general public. That the Hunters who placed the advertisement were women becomes clear when once states, “The subscriber having a sister just arrived from LONDON, who understands the millinery business, she hopes to carry it on to the satisfaction of those who shall favour them with their commands.” Here it becomes clear that the “subscriber,” the person who placed the notice, was a woman who went into business with a sister recently arrived in the colony: “The subscriber” referenced herself as “she.”

While it requires some special attention for the modern reader to identify M. and J. Hunter as female entrepreneurs, it would not have been as difficult for eighteenth-century readers who resided in Williamsburg. Note the careful attention to detail in the advertisement. The Hunters described their merchandise in detail, providing a long list of items as a means of signaling the wide array of choices available to consumers. They made appeals to gentility, fashion, and price. Yet they did not indicate where they operated their millinery shop. This suggests that the Hunters, especially the sister who already resided in Williamsburg for some time, believed that local readers of the Virginia Gazette already knew who they were and where to find them. The signature “M. and J. Hunter” alone does not reveal to modern readers that these milliners were women, but it would have been sufficient for contemporary residents of Williamsburg to immediately associate the advertisement with female entrepreneurs.

September 10

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

Sep 10 - 9:10:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (September 10, 1767).

“LOTTERY, For DISPOSING of certain LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS.”

Advertisements offering slaves for sale regularly appeared among the multitude of commercial notices in colonial newspapers. Sometimes masters sought to sell a single slave via a private sale. Other times merchants advertised auctions for dozens of slaves recently arrived in the colonies as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Especially in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, executors frequently placed notices concerning estate sales that included multiple slaves.

Thomas Moore, however, devised a different method for “DISPOSING of certain LANDS, SLAVES, and STOCKS.” Instead of selling his slaves via auction or negotiation, he ran a lottery with a limited number of tickets. Moore and his agents sought to sell 335 tickets. Forty-one would win prizes, but the other 294 were “Blanks.” Participants could calculate that each ticket had roughly a one in eight chance of winning one of the prizes.

Moore carefully delineated the forty-one prizes, listing a short description and value for each. A total of thirty slaves accounted for twenty of the prizes. The remainder consisted of seven prizes for land (with various improvements), ten for cattle, and four for horses. The total value of all the prizes amounted to £6700. Once all 335 tickets were sold at £20 each, Moore was assured of achieving the full value of the slaves, land, and livestock, a much less risky venture than going to auction and possibly coming up significantly short of the assessed value of his property.

The list of prizes included seven men, ten women, and thirteen children of various ages. Moore described some of the children as “boy” or “girl” rather than “man” or “woman,” suggesting that at least some of them may have been youths. In several instances, prizes consisted of multiple slaves sold together as families. In such cases, Moore used the word “child” and sometimes included an age, usually one or two years. He placed more emphasis, however, on the skills possessed by their parents. Harry, for instance, was “a fine sawer and clapboard carpenter.” York was “a fine gang leader.” Sarah was “a fine house servant, and a very good mantuamaker.”

Participants who purchased a single ticket and won cattle or horses broke even, but those who won slaves or land had a windfall. One slave, a “Negro woman named Sue,” was valued at £25. Ten others were valued at £30, £40, or £50 each. Jemmy, “as good a sawer as any in the colony,” merited £100 on his own. Each of the eight families had been assessed from £75 to £180. Any prize involving land had an even higher value, from £250 to £2000 for a tract of 500 acres and a house that would have been considered the grand prize.

It would not be accurate to say that giving away enslaved men, women, and children as prizes in a lottery was any more or less cruel than other methods of selling them. Moore’s advertisement for his lottery, however, does demonstrate yet another way that slaves, regardless of their family relations or skills, were treated as property and dehumanized in the colonial era.

June 11

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

Jun 11 - 6:11:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 11, 1767).

“JUST IMPORTED, In the Rachel & Mary, Capt. Anderson, a fresh ASSORTMENT of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”

At a glance, a significant number of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements look much the same as many of their counterparts. This often has the effect of underplaying the distinctiveness and innovation of some commercial notices. In addition to inciting demand for the goods and services they sold, advertisers simultaneously pursued two goals when writing copy.

First, they sought to incorporate several common appeals (price, quality, choice, fashion, gentility) that they believed resonated with potential customers. They often deployed formulaic language in the process. While this gave the impression that their notices more or less reiterated others, it also demonstrated that advertisers understood the conventions of current marketing practices. It implied a level of competence that presumably transferred to other aspects of operating their businesses.

On the other hand, advertisers also attempted to distinguish their commercial notices from others in hopes of attracting customers or clients that might otherwise employ their competitors. The Adverts 250 Project regularly identifies and examines such innovations. As a result, some of the repetitiveness and standardization of eighteenth-century advertisements gets overshadowed.

Today’s advertisements help to remedy that. Published one immediately after the other, both advertisements for “DRUGS and MEDICINES” use the same language and structure: a notice that the wares were “JUST IMPORTED,” the name of the vessel that transported the goods and its captain (which allowed readers to compare to the shipping news and assess how recently they had been “JUST IMPORTED”), and a brief indication of that customers could choose among an array of merchandise (“A large ASSORTMENT” versus “A fresh ASSORTMENT” in these two advertisements). William Biers and Benjamin Catton posted advertisements that looked and read strikingly similar to each other.

Still, the notices had small variations. Biers doubled down on his appeal to choice by listing more than three dozen specific items. In contrast, Catton emphasized low prices when he pledged to sell “wholesale or retail, on reasonable terms.” Neither advertiser devised any sort of innovative appeal. Even in making decisions that created advertisements slightly different from the other, both Biers and Catton selected from among well-established elements of eighteenth-century advertising. Then, as now, many advertisements played on methods widely considered effective rather than attempting to create some sort of marketing sensation.

February 25

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

feb-25-2251767-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (February 25, 1767).

“Brought to the Work-house, A NEGROE FELLOW, middle aged.”

This advertisement caught my attention because it is an advertisement about runaway slaves. After doing further research on runaway slaves, I discovered that advertisements like this were very common during this period. Advertisements similar to this one were used to recapture slaves and indentured servants. They listed specific physical characteristics, such as height and clothing. The abundance of slavery advertisements is why the Slavery Adverts 250 Project also exists. Slavery was such an important part of society and the colonists’ economy at this time that slavery advertisements were abundant in many eighteenth-century newspapers.

Sadly, according to Tom Costa, advertisements sometimes did not need to be posted because many slave owners would recapture their slaves within one to two weeks of their escape. Costa also states that many slave owners would only put out advertisements if the runaway was seen as valuable. Unfortunately, advertisements such as these often made it nearly impossible for slaves to escape to freedom.

Many slavery advertisements, spanning several decades, have been digitized and made available for the public to view in the Virginia Gazette. The Virginia Gazette is the only colonial and revolutionary-era newspaper that has been digitized and made available to the general public, providing the ability to view many advertisements similar to this one from the colonial and revolutionary eras. Also, other slavery advertisements are easy to view via the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. This project also provides the public with hundreds of slavery advertisements from 250 years ago, emphasizing how commonplace slavery advertisements were. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project includes slavery advertisements published in newspapers throughout all of the colonies.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

As the guest curators from my Revolutionary America class and I work on this project together, we have many opportunities to discuss methodology, primary and secondary sources, and the availability of digitized documents to scholars and the general public. In the process, my students gain a better understanding of both the past and how historians pursue their work.

From now until the end of the semester, visitors to the Adverts 250 Project may notice that each student incorporates at least one advertisement concerning slavery into her or his week serving as guest curator. This complements the work that each will conduct when curating the companion Slavery Adverts 250 Project during a different week, giving each an opportunity to examine at least one slavery advertisement in greater detail.

Today, Shannon offers important observations about the accessibility of eighteenth-century newspapers, including the advertisements for slaves that prominently appeared in them. To complete their work on both the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, students consult several databases of digitized newspapers as they draw material from the nearly two dozen published in the colonies in 1767. They complete most of their research using Readex’s Early American Newspapers, available via databases linked on the campus library’s website. That particular subscription, however, does not include all of the eighteenth-century newspapers Readex has digitized. When students visit the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society they have access to Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, which includes all of the newspapers available via Early American Newspapers as well as the Pennsylvania Gazette (perhaps the most important eighteenth-century American newspaper) and both versions of the Virginia Gazette published in 1767 (one by Purdie and Dixon and one by Rind). Students must also visit the American Antiquarian Society to access three newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, via Accessible Archives.

As Shannon notes, it is not necessary to visit a research library or have remote access to their digital resources to examine the Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made these sources available to the general public via their Digital Library, which also includes manuscripts, research reports, and York County estate inventories. This collection of newspapers includes several publications (or continuations of publications with new printers) all published under the title Virginia Gazette: Parks (1736-1740, 1745-1746), Hunter (1751-1757, 1759, 1761), Royle (1762, 1763, 1765), Purdie and Dixon (1766-1774), Rind (1766-1774), Pinkney (1774-1776), Dixon and Hunter (1775-1778), Purdie (1775-1778), Clarkson and Davis (1779-1780), and Dixon and Nicholson (1779-1780).

The Adverts 250 Project includes a daily digest of all slavery advertisements published 250 years ago that day. The citations for advertisements from the Virginia Gazette always includes a link that takes readers to Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, directly to the correct page of the newspaper so readers can examine each advertisement in its original context. Each advertisement tells an important story of human bondage, but they tell even richer and more complete stories when not disembodied from the other advertisements, news items, and other content that accompanied them. It’s not possible for the Adverts 250 Project or the Slavery Adverts 250 Project to provide that kind of access to every eighteenth-century newspaper. Colonial Williamsburg offers unique access to the Virginia Gazette to all readers, not just those associated with colleges and universities or major research institutions.

 

November 6

GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford

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

nov-6-1161766-virginia-gazette
Virginia Gazette (November 6, 1766).

Just imported from BRITAIN, in the ship Spiers.”

During the eighteenth century, a “period of general prosperity,” the “consumer revolution” was the driving force for economic change in Europe and the colonies.[1] Colonists raised staple crops in order to export and then purchased imported goods that interested them, like the “Assortment of European GOODS” that arrived on the Spiers.[2] Through advertising, shopkeepers and merchantsfrom different social and economic backgrounds were able to promote and list the various products that they had in stock. By doing so, they attempted to interest many people in the vast number of products that arrived from Europe.

As I analyzed this advertisement, I noted that George Purdie and Richard Taylor announced the arrival of newly imported European goods, which they sold for reasonable prices in Smithfield and Petersburg. These included products from places other than just England, like “German rolls,” “German serges,” and “Irish linens and sheetings.” This advertisement opened up an opportunity for colonists to assemble and purchase a variety of goods at shops in Smithfield and Petersburg. Purdie and Taylor advertised goods that came from far away, but they drew colonists in Virginia together through shopping.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

The heading that appeared above the advertisement that Carolyn selected reveals that it was the first advertisement that appeared in the November 6, 1766, issue of the Virginia Gazette. The advertisement itself provides insight into the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, as Carolyn describes. In turn, I have chosen to examine the prominence of advertising throughout the entire issue in which it appeared.

Like other newspapers published in 1766, the Virginia Gazette consisted of four pages, created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and than folding it in half. Each of those pages had three columns (along with the masthead that extended across the top of the first page and the colophon that extended across the bottom of the fourth page). Thus each issue of the Virginia Gazette had twelve total columns for news, advertisements, and other items. (This issue included a poem on the first page.) Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, like other printers, published their newspaper only once a week. Sometimes eighteenth-century printers issued supplements when circumstances merited, but usually four pages of content sufficed for most weeks.

How was that content distributed in this issue? Purdie and Taylor’s notice was the first advertisement in the issue, but how much of the issue consisted of advertising? The section for advertisements began at the bottom of the first column on the second page and continued throughout the remainder of the issue. Except for the colophon, the final two pages featured advertising exclusively. In total, eight of the twelve columns – two-thirds of the issue – were given over to advertising (which generated additional revenue for the printers).

Many of those advertisements offered slaves for sale. More than a dozen advertisements, taking up an entire column, announced stray horses that had been “Taken up” so they could be returned to their owners. Some advertisements warned against runaway slaves and servants. Others made announcements of various sorts. Still, a fair number of advertisements promoted consumer goods and services. As Carolyn suggests, the rituals of imagining, examining, and purchasing imported goods gave colonists common experiences. Not every issue of the Virginia Gazette or other newspapers included so much advertising, but across the colonies wholesales and retailers regularly resorted to the public prints to encourage consumption of an increasing array of imported goods.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4, (October 1986): 476.

[2] Breen, Empire of Goods,” 475.

September 19

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

sep-19-9191766-virginia-gazette
Virginia Gazette (September 19, 1766).

“To be SOLD, by way of LOTTERY … SUNDRY Millinery Goods.”

Joseph Calvert operated a vendue (or auction) house, where he likely sold some of his own wares but also earned commissions for assisting other entrepreneurs to sell their merchandise. The latter appears to have been the case in this instance, considering that the advertisement directed potential customers interested in “SUNDRY Millinery Goods” to see “Mrs. King.” The advertisement listed a variety of goods, many of them certainly imported. Yet describing the “Millinery Goods” as “fresh made up, and in the newest fashion” suggested that King was not merely a shopkeeper who sold goods that arrived readymade. She likely also worked as a milliner herself, making or modifying “a variety of caps and fillets … with many other articles.”

The vendue master and the milliner advertised a scheme designed to liquidate King’s merchandise and guarantee revenues of £76. Rather than hold an auction that might yield lower bids, they instead sponsored a lottery. King’s inventory would be divided into 102 lots to be distributed as prizes for winners. Only 304 tickets were to be sold, thus guaranteeing participants that each ticket had approximately a one-in-three chance of winning a prize (rather than being one of the “Blanks”). Presumably, the merchandise had been divided into lots of varying values with certain prizes much more significant windfalls for winners than others.

Colonists regularly bought and sold goods by vendue in the eighteenth century. Auctions were often forms of entertainment, but Calvert and King introduced an additional layer of excitement and anticipation in their attempt to incite interest in the “SUNDRY Millinery Goods.” Selling these items “by way of LOTTERY” may have attracted buyers willing to gamble on huge rewards for a modest investment, buyers that may not have been interested or able to participate in bidding at a traditional auction.