April 17


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

Apr 17 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766).

“Cash and a good Price given for POT-ASH.”

When I first came across this advertisement there were several things that intrigued me. The first thing that caught my eye was “POT-ASH.” Potash is the common term for the nutrient form of the element potassium, which today is commonly used as a fertilizer. However, according to William I. Roberts III, in colonial America potash was essential for the production of “crown or flint glass, soft soap, various drugs and dyes, and saltpetre.” The opening line of the advertisement also caught my interest because he is offering to buy potash not selling it. The rest of the advertisement then goes on to offer a multitude of goods from window glass to flour and iron. This interested me because one of the first items for sale in Dennie’s shop is indigo. During the colonial period indigo was a major export from the colonies to England. Dennie’s advertisement exemplifies the growing demand for potash and other products from the colonies throughout the late eighteenth century.



Why did William Dennie want potash? Did he plan to use it himself in a business he operated? Or was he seeking to resell it and make a profit?

Trevor provided a link to an article that describes potash as “the principal industrial chemical of the eighteenth century” and indicates that it “was practically the only alkali used in the textile industries for bleaching linens, scouring woolens, and printing calicoes.” Printing patterns on textiles was not a common industry in early America (though some manufacturers did experiment sporadically by the end of the eighteenth century), but fullers – like the silk-dyer and scowerer from an advertisement featured last week – certainly bleached linens and scoured woolens. Perhaps Dennie intended to sell potash – along with “choice Indigo” to colonial fullers. As Trevor points out, his advertisement did include a variety of materials produced in the colonies (“Kippin’s Snuff” and “Philadelphia Flour,” for instance) that were transported from one region to another to be sold.

Perhaps Dennie had other plans. Maybe he issued a call for potash so he could export it to England. Again, from the linked article about American potash manufacture before the American Revolution, “[s]ince potash was obtained from wood ashes, the American colonies would appear to have been an obvious source of a product that was becoming increasingly vital to Great Britain as her industries grew and diversified.” Until a decade before the Revolution – about the time this advertisement was published – England depended on Germany and the Baltic to supply its potash. Dennie may have been on the cusp of this transition, helping to usher in the colonies as an increasingly important supplier of potash to England.

The advertisement does not make clear exactly why William Dennie issued a call for potash, but that he offered “Cash and a good Price” does indicate that demand existed for this product. Most colonial advertisements for goods and services attempted to incite demand. This one demonstrates existing demand for a particular product.

January 23

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

Jan 23 - 1:23:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 23, 1766).

“Choice COCAO TO BE SOLD By William Dennie, at his Store in King-Street.”

Colonial Americans loved stimulating beverages:  coffee, tea, and chocolate.  Each of these products testifies to the ways diets and rituals associated with food and drink evolved as a result of the webs of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic World and beyond in the early modern era.

Chocolate has become such a significant part of western culture that most people are not aware of its Mesoamerican origins.  Europeans did not encounter chocolate until they came into contact with the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, where it had been consumed for at least three thousand years.  Chocolate indeed has a long history, but it’s relatively new to most of the world.

In a fascinating article, Marcy Norton reports that Europeans initially did not care for chocolate, but over time developed a taste for it. [1]  Indeed, many Spaniards worried that in preparing and consuming chocolate according to Aztec methods that they were becoming colonized rather than being the colonizers, that they were being reduced to “savages” rather than “civilizing” the indigenous peoples who were the targets of their conquest.

Over time, however, Europeans learned to love chocolate.  By the 1760s chocolate was affordable to a broad array of colonists, who consumed it at home and in coffeehouses where they gathered to conduct business, discuss politics, and gossip.

Jan 23 - Chocolate Pot
Chocolate Pot (Edward Winslow, Boston, ca. 1700-1710).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Colonial Williamsburg’s history of “Chocolate in the American Colonies,” Rodney Snyder offers this recipe from The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769):  “Scrape four ounces of chocolate and pour a quart of boiling water upon it; mix it well and sweeten it to your taste; give it a boil and let it stand all night; then mix it again very well; boil it in two minutes, then mix it till it will leave the froth upon the tops of your cups.”

Colonial Williamsburg also offers this history of “hot chocolate,” which includes a greater number of images and features a gallery of coffee and chocolate pots.  You may also enjoy this National Public Radio story about “How Hot Chocolate Became More American Than Apple Pie.”

William Dennie published a no-frills advertisement for “Choice COCAO.”  Perhaps he figured chocolate was so popular that it would sell itself once potential customers knew he stocked it.

[1] Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Meso-american Aesthetics,” American Historical Review 111, no. 3 (June 2006): 660-691.


When I featured an advertisement for tea earlier this month I also commented that several modern suppliers market tea by drawing connections to its colonial heritage.  The same goes for chocolate, including American Heritage Historic Chocolate, “artisan chocolate made from a recipe from 1750 & made only from ingredients available in the 18th century.”  They also sponsor events, including a chocolate demonstration at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia last October.  I wish I could have gone.  Commodities and the history of consumption provide fertile ground for engaging general audiences in learning about the past.  Chocolate was popular in eighteenth-century America and remains popular today, but the methods of procuring, preparing, and consuming it have evolved significantly, presenting wonderful opportunities to examine changes in culture and consumption over time.

Jan 23 - American Heritage Chocolate
Finely Grated Chocolate Drink sold by American Heritage Historic Chocolate.