March 20

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

Mar 20 - 3:17:1768 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 17, 1768).

“ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted in it for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768. William Rind also published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768, though it was not the same newspaper despite bearing the same name. The printers competed for subscribers, readers, and advertisers as well as customers for job printing. Most eighteenth-century printers did not regularly list their rates for subscriptions or advertisements in their newspapers, but Purdie and Dixon did so in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette, as did Rind in the colophon of his Virginia Gazette.

Not surprisingly, the competitors set the same rates. An annual subscription cost 12 shillings and 6 pence. Advertisements were much more lucrative for printers. Purdie and Dixon specified that colonists could have “ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted … for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.” Rind named the same prices, though he also offered a further clarification: “long ones in Proportion.” Among eighteenth-century printers who did publish their advertising rates that was a standard practice. Purdie and Dixon most likely adopted the same practice even if they did not underscore it in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette. What qualified as an advertisement “of a moderate Length” likely depended on negotiations between printer and advertiser. Neither Purdie and Dixon nor Rind indicated whether they defined length by the number of words or the amount of space on the page or both. Although the two would have been roughly proportional, inserting woodcuts or deploying several lines of type set in larger font did occupy more space.

These rates reveal that advertising could generate significant revenues that contributed to making it possible for printers to publish their newspapers and disseminate news and other content, including editorial pieces like the tenth missive in the “LETTERS From a FARMER in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British colonies” that appeared in both Virginia Gazettes on March 17, 1768. In “Letter X,” John Dickinson warned about the progression of tyranny that colonists could expect if the current abuses by Parliament were not challenged but instead became precedent for future governance from the other side of the Atlantic.

At 12 pence per shilling, a subscription to either Virginia Gazette cost 150 pence total, just under 3 pence per issue. An advertisement, however, cost twelve times as much, three shillings, just for its first insertion. This model, advertising funding the distribution of other content, continued into the nineteenth century and beyond with the introduction of new media made possible by advancing technologies. Although we take this system for granted today and even lament the intrusion of advertising into practically every aspect of daily life, colonists depended on advertising for its role in delivering the news at a crucial point in American history. Advertising provided an important alternate revenue stream for printers, helping them to spread news and editorial content during the imperial crisis that eventually resulted in the American Revolution.

March 10

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

Mar 10 - 3:10:1768 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie & Dixon] (March 10, 1768).
“SAGATHIES, duroys, grandurells.”

In March 1768, John Carter advertised dozens of items in stock at his store in Williamsburg, placing identical notices in the Virginia Gazette published by Alexander Purdie and John Dixon and the Virginia Gazette published by William Rind. His inventory included an array of textiles, among them “SAGATHIES, duroys, grandurells, … black silk satinet, black velverets, black and coloured jennets, silk damascus, … nankeen, India dimity, … [and] warpt and stript hollands.” The names of fabrics on this list seem incomprehensible to most twenty-first-century readers, but they would have been quite familiar to eighteenth-century readers and consumers throughout the British Atlantic world. Merchants and shopkeepers from New England to Georgia published similar lists in the advertisements they inserted in local newspapers.

Wholesalers and retailers distributed such lists with full confidence that their prospective customers understood this language of consumption. They knew that readers possessed such familiarity with imported textiles that they could make distinctions between, for instance, duroys and jennets, without needing additional explanation in the advertisements. They expected that consumers could assess the relative cost and quality of certain fabrics from the names alone. In turn, both sellers and prospective customers conceived of a hierarchy of textiles tied to the status of those who most often purchased or donned them. For example, they associated certain textiles, such as osnaburgs, with laboring and enslaved people, fully aware that middling sorts and the gentry had the means to avoid such coarse fabric.

Phrases like “blue cambrick handkerchiefs” and “yellow flowered serges for table covers” might not conjure particularly vivid images for modern readers, but they would have for the colonists who read Carter’s advertisement in the 1760s. Colonial consumers would have been able to imagine not only the appearance of these and other items but also how they felt to touch or to wear. This testifies to how actively colonists participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, acquiring both goods and knowledge of an extensive assortment of items available in the marketplace.

March 3

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

Mar 3 - 3:3:1768 Virginia Gazette Rind
Virginia Gazette [Rind] (March 3, 1768).
“Just imported … A LARGE assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”

All of the advertisements in the March 3, 1768, edition of William Rind’s Virginia Gazette included a unique visual feature: bold lines on either side of either side of the column. The advertisements, however, were not the only content that received this treatment. Throughout the entire issue, from the first page to the last, such lines separated all of the columns of news, essays, advertisements, and other items. Why?

These heavy lines were a typographical convention that expressed mourning. Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant governor of the Virginia colony who had served as acting governor in the absence of the Earl of Loudon and Jeffery Amherst for the past decade, died on March 3, 1768. Rind honored him by transforming the usual appearance of his newspaper. Readers knew at a glance that someone important had passed away. The announcement appeared on the second page, made even easier to locate because it was the only item in the entire issue that also had wide lines printed above and below. An outline composed of printing ornaments enclosed the announcement, further distinguishing it from the other content. Alexander Purdie and John Dixon also marked Fauquier’s death in their Virginia Gazette, though they restricted the typographical intervention to a box that enclosed the announcement. The visual aspects of the remainder of their newspaper did not deviate from standard practices. Still, their treatment of Fauquier was exceptional. Death notices for colonists regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, but only the most influential were demarcated in this manner.

Colonists sometimes adapted this convention for other purposes. The day before the Stamp Act went into effect, for instance, Benjamin Franklin and David Hall enclosed the first and last pages of the October 31, 1765, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette with dark and heavy lines as a symbol of mourning for the rights colonists lost at the hands of Parliament. A single news item on the third page received similar typographical treatment. It lamented “the most UNCONSTITUTIONAL ACT that ever these Colonies could have imagined, to wit, The STAMP ACT.”

Although Fauquier had dissolved the House of Burgesses when members passed several resolutions in opposition to the Stamp Act, he also gained a reputation for being sympathetic to the colonists and often advocated in their interests. Issues of both newspapers that bore the name Virginia Gazette that announced his death also included the eighth letter from John Dickinson’s series of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” The bold lines of mourning in Rind’s newspaper ran alongside this letter from “A FARMER.” As much as colonists mourned the loss of a popular acting governor, many likely also considered it appropriate that the typography of mourning extended to Dickinson’s essay about taxation without representation, not unlike Franklin and Hall’s treatment of the Stamp Act a few years earlier.

Mar 3 - 3:3:1768 Announcement Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie & Dixon] (March 3, 1768).

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Mar 3 - 3:3:1768 Announcement Virginia Gazette Rind
Virginia Gazette [Rind] (March 3, 1768).

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.