November 24

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (November 22, 1771).

“Proper Allowances made to those that sell again.”

Numerous merchants and shopkeepers regularly placed advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter as well as the other newspaper published in Boston in the early 1770s.  While the shopkeepers aimed their notices at consumers, some merchants address both retailers and consumers.  William Bant, for instance, stocked a “large and general Assortment of GOODS … to sell by Wholesale and Retail.”  Not every advertiser identified their intended customers so explicitly; some instead made more specific appeals that invited both retailers and consumers to purchase their merchandise.

John Adams and Company advertised a “complete Assortment of Cream-colour’d China, Glass, Delph and Stone Ware” as well as groceries and a “small Assortment of English Goods” available at their shop near the Old South Meeting House.  Adams and Company informed prospective buyers that they sold their wares “very low for Cash – with proper Allowances made to those that sell again.”  In other words, retailers who bought in volume received discounts.  Similarly, William Bant concluded his extensive advertisement that listed dozens of items with a nota bene that alerted “Traders and Shopkeepers” that they “may be supplied with Assortments of the foregoing Articles, upon as good Terms, as at any Store in Town.”  Bant hoped to entice retailers by offering to match the prices set by his competitors.

In another advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Smith and Atkinson made it clear that they intended to deal with retailers exclusively.  They acquired a “Large and General Assortment of European and India Goods … on the very best Terms,” allowing them to sell their merchandise “(by Wholesale only) at such Prices as shall give full Satisfaction to those in Town and Country who purchase their Assortments here.”  In addition, they encouraged retailers who imported goods on their own to supplement their inventories and “compleat their Assortments” by selecting from among the items Smith and Atkinson had on hand.

Readers encountered numerous advertisements for consumer goods in just about every issue of newspapers published in Boston in the early 1770s.  Merchants and shopkeepers hoping to sell directly to consumers placed the majority of those advertisements, but not all of them.  William Bant, John Adams and Company, and Smith and Atkinson were among the many merchants who sold imported goods wholesale, designing marketing materials aimed at retailers rather than consumers.

February 18

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

Feb 18 - 2:15:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury (February 15, 1770).

“All of which were imported before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”

Colonial merchants and shopkeepers frequently incorporated details about how they came into possession of their imported goods into their efforts to convince consumers to purchase them.  Many newspaper advertisements began with a recitation of which vessels had transported the wares across the Atlantic along with the names of the captains and the ports or origin.  This formulaic introduction to advertisements for consumer goods often began with the phrase “just imported,” meant to signal to prospective customers that purveyors of goods did not expect them to purchase inventory that had been lingering on their shelves or in their storehouses for extended periods.

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, however, many advertisers abandoned that marketing strategy in favor of another.  When the duties placed on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea via the Townshend Acts motivated colonists to protest by boycotting a broad array of goods imported from Britain, the phrase “just imported” took on a different meaning, one with political overtones.  Once nonimportation agreements were place for months, the newness of goods no longer had the same value.  Items “just imported” from London and other English ports lost their cachet when they became symbols of both British oppression and the complicity of any who dared to violate community standards by continuing to import and sell such goods.

Many advertisers developed a new marketing appeal contingent on the politics of the period.  They underscored that they did indeed sell goods that arrived in the colonies many months earlier, perhaps grateful that conspicuously adhering to nonimportation agreements presented an opportunity to sell surplus inventory that had indeed lingered on their shelves or in their storehouses longer than was healthy for balancing their own accounts.  Whatever their motives, they harnessed politics in their attempts to drum up business, informing prospective customers that they acquired their wares in advance of the boycotts going into effect.  Such was the case for William Bant who had “yet on Hand a few English Goods” in February 1770.  He made sure that consumers knew that all those items “were imported before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”  He did his patriotic duty … and prospective customers did not have to worry about shirking theirs when they visited his shop.

May 14

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

THIS is to assure the Publick, that it was inserted by Mistake of the Printers.”

May 14 - 5:11:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (May 11, 1769).
William Bant needed to do some damage control. The May 8, 1769, edition of Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette included an advertisement that proclaimed, “William Bant, Has imported in the last Vessels from LONDON, A General Assortment of English GOODS, suitable for the approaching Season, which he will sell at his Shop in Cornhill, Boston.” Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette was published simultaneously with the Boston Post-Boy, each title consisting of two pages yet printed together on a single broadsheet. The very first item in the May 8 edition of the Boston Post-Boy was the news article about the “Merchants & Traders in the Town of BOSTON” who had entered into a nonimportation agreement as an act of economic resistance against the duties leveled on paper, glass, and other imported goods by the Townshend Acts. The article included a report on how well those who had signed “said Agreement” had abided by its terms, indicating that only six or seven local merchants and shopkeepers continued “Importations … as usual.” Furthermore, the article republished “The ARTICLES of the Agreement entered into by the Merchants in August last” as a reminder and to alleviate any confusion. Even if Bant’s advertisement had not appeared in such close proximity to this article, readers would have been aware of the nonimportation agreement and the report assessing compliance because it was the talk of the town. Any who happened to read other newspapers would have also encountered the news there.

Bant’s advertisement advising that he carried goods “imported in the last Vessels from LONDON” seemed to run afoul of the nonimportation agreement, setting him apart from the vast majority of merchants and shopkeepers in Boston. He immediately set about publishing a clarification. Refusing to wait an entire week until the next issue of the combined Boston Posy-Boy and Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette, he turned to the combined Boston Weekly News-Letter and Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, published just three days later (and dated May 9, the day after the advertisement ran). In a new advertisement he quoted the notice that ran earlier in the week and then offered an explanation: “THIS is to assure the Publick, that it was inserted by Mistake of the Printers, being an old Advertisement sent them last Summer, and intended for that Season only.” This raises interesting questions about the practices for preparing advertisements for publication within the printing office, but none of those would have been Bant’s primary concern. He needed to defend his reputation. To that end, he continued, “The said William Bant further assures the Publick that as he chearfully signed the Agreement for Non-Importation, he has not, neither will he on any Consideration whatever, break the Engagement he thereby laid himself under.” Bant assured prospective customers and the community more generally that he was a man of his word, that in operating his business he abided by his agreements and practiced the right sort of politics. He did not want to be confused for those six or seven who continued “Importations … as usual” contrary to the consensus of his peers and competitors.

Bant feared the impact this unfortunate mistake could have on his business. He underscored once again that the advertisement did not represent his current practices. He had not imported goods from England; instead, an old advertisement ran as a result of an “egregious, though inadvertent Error of the Printers only.” Bant entreated “the Publick, especially his Customers” to recognize what had actually happened and not punish him for it. He begged that prospective customers “will not neglect him in Consequence” of an error made in the printing office. Much to Bant’s dismay, he unexpectedly found politics injected into his newspaper advertisements. He realized the gravity of the situation given public discourse that so inextricably linked politics and commerce in the late 1760s. Like other merchants and shopkeepers, he likely hoped to continue quietly selling surplus goods imported prior to the nonimportation agreement going into effect, but he had no choice but to respond as quickly as possible when the republication of an old advertisement produced the wrong sort of attention for his merchandise and his character.

May 23

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

May 23 - 5:23:1768 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (May 23, 1768).

Those who will favor him with their Custom may always depend upon being as well used as at any Store or Shop in Town.”

Shopkeeper William Bant advertised in a very crowded marketplace. Residents of Boston encountered shops and stores practically everywhere they went as they traversed the city in the late 1760s. They also experienced a vibrant culture of advertising for consumer goods and services in the pages of the several newspapers published in the city. Some of those newspapers so overflowed with advertisements that the publishers regularly distributed supplements to accompany the regular issues. As the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century continued in Boston, Bant was just one of countless merchandisers attempting to entice prospective customers to patronize his shop.

As part of that effort, he inserted a relatively brief advertisement in the May 23, 1768, edition of the Boston Evening-Post. In it, he announced that he stocked “A general Assortment of English and India GOODS.” Unlike many other shopkeepers, however, Bant did not provide a list of his inventory. On the following page, Thomas Lee’s advertisement extended one-third of a column and listed dozens of imported goods he offered for sale. Jonathan and John Amory’s advertisement was twice as long and listed even more merchandise. John Gore, Jr., inserted an advertisement of a similar length, though its list of goods appeared even more crowded due to graphic design choices made by the compositor.

How did Bant attempt to compete with merchants and shopkeepers who invested in so much more space for promoting their wares in the public prints? He left the details of his “general Assortment” of goods to the imagination, instead opting to emphasize customer service. He pledged that “those who will favor him with their Custom may always depend upon being as well used as at any Store or Shop in Town.” Bant did not promise merely satisfactory service; he proclaimed that the service he provided was unsurpassed in the busy marketplace of Boston. He did not need to overwhelm prospective customers with dense and extensive lists of all the items they could purchase in his shop. Instead, he invited them to imagine the experience of shopping and interacting with the purveyors of the goods they desired. Just as merchandisers competed with each other for customers, consumers sometimes competed with each other for the attention of merchants and shopkeepers. Bant presumed that shoppers sometimes experienced frustration when they dealt with retailers. In turn, he assured prospective customers that they would not be disappointed in the service they received at his shop.