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.

August 29

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

Aug 29 - 8:29:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (August 29, 1766).

“RUN away … a short squat young Mulatto fellow.”

Amos Legg, an enslaved “young Mulatto fellow,” seemed determined to escape from bondage. In an advertisement alerting readers of the Virginia Gazette that Legg had made his escape, William Meredith also reported that “Sometime past he was taken up by Capt. Dawson of Norfolk, in Jamaica, and brought home.” Legg must have been a particularly recalcitrant slave, one who did not allow the setback of having been captured and returned to his master deter him from making a subsequent attempt to seize his own liberty in an age when Virginia’s gentry protested what they considered “enslavement” via infringements on their liberty by Parliament.

Like other genres of advertisements, those for runaways often followed a general formula and included stock language (just as they often included a stock image of an enslaved person). Advertisements for runaways frequently warned “masters of vessels” against giving passage to suspected runaways attempting to put as much distance between themselves and their masters as possible. That Legg had previously made it to Jamaica from Virginia indicates that masters had real cause to worry about such possibilities.

This advertisement tells a story of the resilience of one man who refused to accept his enslavement, but it also reveals the tenuous position of runaways. No matter how far away from their masters they managed to get, they were never completely free or safe. Their everyday experience included the possibility of capture and return, compounded by threats of punishment for the audacity of having made an escape at all. A sharp-eyed captain had taken up Amos Legg hundreds of miles from Virginia. How many other advertisements about runaway slaves resulted in men and women being returned to their masters after an all-too-brief respite from bondage?

August 17

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

Aug 17 - 8:15:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (August 15, 1766).

“Some excellent pieces of sculpture in relieve of Lord CAMDEN and Mr. PITT.”

In the wake of the American Revolution, a variety of artists created and marketed items that commemorated American statesmen and military heroes and depicted significant events. In so doing, they participated in creating a national culture that celebrated the new republic while uniting geographically dispersed citizens in common acts of consumption and veneration. They helped to cultivate a sense of patriotism rooted in a distinct American identity.

Prior to the Revolution, artists also produced and sold items that shaped national identity and allegiance. In the summer of 1766, colonists in Virginia could purchase “some excellent pieces of sculpture in relieve of Lord CAMDEN and Mr. PITT” created by a “Celebrated artist in London.” Camden and Pitt were British politicians who had gained popularity in the colonies due to their opposition to the Stamp Act, arguing that it was not constitutional to impose taxes on the colonies without their consent and that consent was only possible with representation. Camden was one of the few who opposed the Declaratory Act as well. From the perspective of Americans who opposed the Stamp Act, Camden and Pitt truly understood the appropriate and just relationship between Great Britain and the colonies. The advertisement for the sculpture in relieve pieces described them as “names which will be ever dear to AMERICA,” but offered no further explanation. None was needed. Any colonists who read the newspaper or listened to discussions taking place in public places already knew of the accomplishments of Camden and Pitt.

This advertisement and the works it marketed envisioned American political and cultural identity in complicated ways. Americans still thought of themselves as Britons in 1766. At the time, few wanted to sever ties; instead, they sought to benefit from all the protections and advantages that were supposed to be inherent in being part of the British Empire. By purchasing sculpture in relievo pieces of Camden and Pitt and displaying them in their homes, colonists could confirm their allegiance to Britain and the ideals of its political system while simultaneously affirming their particular concerns as Americans. They did not need to prioritize one over the other. The two found themselves in balance rather than opposition to each other, a situation that would change dramatically over the course of the next two decades.

August 3

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

“LEFT by the subscriber at Mr. Bennett White’s … a neat assortment of JEWELLERY.”

Aug 3 - 8:1:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (August 1, 1766).

James Geddy “became Williamsburg’s best-known colonial silversmith,” according to the entry detailing his silversmithing and retail business by Colonial Williamsburg. His advertisement in the Virginia Gazette did not offer much by way of introduction, but Geddy may have believed that he could rely on the reputation he had established and did not need to promote his “neat assortment of JEWELLERY, with GOLD and SILVER WORK” beyond selling it “at the lowest rates.”

It appears that Geddy placed this advertisement as part of an effort to expand his business and gain customers in a new market beyond Williamsburg, up the James River in New Castle in Hanover County (the vicinity of Richmond today). He did not set up a shop or workshop of his own in that town; instead, he “LEFT” his wares “at Mr. Bennett White’s, who keeps a publick house of good entertainment in Newcastle.” In addition, Geddy also accepted orders via White, either to repair damaged items or create new ones to specification. In choosing a partner in New Castle, Geddy likely valued the high volume of patrons who frequented White’s tavern. Rather than attempt a partnership with a local smith or retailer (neither of which would have appreciated a competitor from Williamsburg attempting to siphon off potential customers), Geddy chose an establishment that likely had greater foot traffic, both locals and travelers. White may have earned commissions on his sales and orders, making the arrangement mutually beneficial to the silversmith and the tavern keeper.

Learn more about Geddy and his business by visiting the original James Geddy House and the reconstructed James Geddy Foundry at Colonial Williamsburg.

August 2

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

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Virginia Gazette (August 1, 1766).

“Any Gentlemen may be supplied with the same … in Norfolk, and … in Williamsburg.”

Philip Watson sold “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” to customers in Shockoe, but that was not the only place in the colony that readers of the Virginia Gazette could purchase this product. Watson concluded his advertisement with a nota bene stating that “Any Gentlemen may be supplied with the same at Mr. Thomas Hepburn’s in Norfolk, and at Mr. James Southall’s in Williamsburg.”

The nota bene demonstrates two aspects of doing business in colonial Virginia. First, it points to the distribution of consumer goods, in this case “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” in particular. Watson knew that many readers of the Virginia Gazette would not find it practical to call on him in Shockoe, so he offered additional locations that carried the same product. In order to make as many sales as possible, Watson incorporated convenience as part of his customer service.

That Watson listed three locations in three towns also testifies to the reach of newspaper distribution in the 1760s in Virginia and other colonies. Newspapers did not serve just the city or town in which they were printed. They passed through networks of subscribers and other readers throughout the city or town’s hinterland and beyond. Even in colonies with multiple newspapers, they tended to be printed in just one city. As a result, advertisements reached far beyond the places where newspapers were printed. Philip Watson could confidently place an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, printed in the colony’s capital, and know that it would reach readers in Shockoe and Norfolk as well as Williamsburg.

As an aside, this advertisements also points to some of the difficulty using eighteenth-century names for towns. Where was Shockoe? Did Watson mean the relatively remote area that is currently an unincorporated community in Pittsylvania County? Probably not. It’s much more likely that he sold “POOLE’s best Scotch SNUFF” in what became Richmond – on the James River, the colony’s main waterway and means of transporting tobacco and other goods – which now contains the neighborhoods of Shockoe Hill, Shockoe Slip, and Shockoe Bottom. As with many other aspects of eighteenth-century advertisements, contemporary readers needed no explanation of the location of Shockoe.

July 25

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

Jul 25 - 7:25:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (July 25, 1766).

“Where likewise may be had the mathematical GOUTY CHAIR.”

What was a “mathematical GOUTY CHAIR”? The gouty chair was a precursor to the modern wheelchair (though what made this particular model “mathematical” remains unclear). In Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England, 1754-1851, Akiko Shimbo indicates that it is not exactly certain when gouty stools and gouty chairs first appeared: “the earliest example in published pattern books was Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (first edition, 1788).”[1]

Those who suffer from gout experience painful inflammation of the joints, notably in the hands and feet (and especially the toes), which would indeed make standing or walking difficult. Shimbo further indicates that elite men were especially prone to gout in the eighteenth century; the malady was associated with an increase in luxury. The term “gouty chair” was likely intended “to convey a luxurious and superior image.”[2]

That made the gouty chair ideal for Benjamin Bucktrout, CABINET MAKER, from LONDON,” to promote in his advertisement. Bucktrout arrived in Williamsburg in 1766; his advertisement was the first time his name appeared in any sort of public records in the colony. He seized upon the occasion to make a memorable first impression. Not only did he have the cachet of migrating from London, the cosmopolitan center of the empire, he also promised that he produced furniture “in the neatest and newest fashions.” What better way to demonstrate the fashionable aspects of his work than to construct gouty chairs, a product already linked to luxury and refinement? In highlighting this particular piece of furniture, he signaled to the local elite that he understood their concerns and was prepared to serve them well.

Jul 25 - Gouty Chair
Gouty Chair (Unknown Maker, ca. 1800).  Victoria and Albert Museum.

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[1] Akiko Shimbo, Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England, 1754-1851: Design as Interaction (Routledge, 2015). See chapter 4, “Forming Taste and Style: Consumers’ Needs and Participation.”

[2] Shimbo, Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England. See chapter 4.

July 12

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

Jul 12 - 7:11:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (July 12, 1766).

“WANTED, A YOUNG man qualified to act as BAR-KEEPER.”

Today we rely on a variety of media to connect employers and prospective employees. Many jobseekers identify potential positions via announcements or listings in online forums. Increasingly, they submit all or most of their application materials electronically. Qualified candidates may be invited for in-person interviews or those conversations might take place over the telephone or internet. The job search apparatus has changed significantly within living memory.

Today’s advertisement provides a glimpse of how some positions were filled in eighteenth-century America. When Joseph Pullett needed to hire a barkeeper, he placed a notice in the Virginia Gazette. His announcement included a series of qualifications, not unlike today’s employment listings.

Pullett expected candidates to have at least minimal education, but probably assumed that they would learn experience as well. For instance, he suggested that applicants should understand “something of accounts.” In other words, it was not necessary to know all the ins and outs of advanced bookkeeping, but Pullett wanted a barkeeper familiar enough with ledgers that (with a little eighteenth-century on-the-job training) he could assist with those responsibilities. To that end, he also needed to be able to write “a tolerable good hand” in order to effectively keep the accounts.

Reputation and recommendations also played a role in successful job searches in the eighteenth century. It was not enough to demonstrate that he possessed these skills and knowledge; any young many that applied needed recommendations testifying to his skill and his character. Many employment advertisements sought “sober” applicants, though this most likely referred to an appropriate temperament and comportment rather than abstaining from alcohol.

Although some of the methods for filling jobs have changed in the past two centuries other aspects continue to look very familiar.