August 9

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

Aug 9 - 8:6:1767 Massacgusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (August 6, 1767).

“A Fresh and general Assortment of English Goods.”

In his short advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette, William Fisher used “Fine Hyson TEA,” a popular commodity, to attract the attention of readers, but Fisher did not sell just tea “at his Shop in Cornhill near the Post-Office.” Once he had their attention, he informed potential customers that he had also “lately Imported a fresh and general Assortment of English Goods.” To make his merchandise more alluring, he also pledged to charge “the cheapest Rates.” Although brief, especially compared to popular list-style advertisements that enumerated dozens or even hundreds of items, Fisher’s advertisement made several appeals to consumers, including choice, price, and quality.

I chose this advertisement to highlight a recent change in the methodology used for selecting advertisements featured by the Adverts 250 Project. Since the project commenced, every day it has consistently examined an advertisement published 250 years ago that day. When no newspaper had been published on a particular day, the methodology required going back a day to select an advertisement from among newspapers that would have been published most recently in the colonies, a version of consulting the “freshest advices” so often promoted in mastheads of the era. The project resorted to this fairly regularly during the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act crisis because so many newspapers ceased publication while the act was in effect. After repeal, however, scarcity of newspapers – and advertisements – rarely presented a problem. Colonial printers returned to distributing their weekly publications in the late spring of 1766; that meant that curating the Adverts 250 Project involved working with a much fuller slate of newspapers in the spring of 2016, at least one new publication every day …

… with one exception. No colonial printers distributed newspapers on Sundays. The methodology for selecting advertisements required going back one day. As noted yesterday, the Providence Gazette was the only colonial newspaper distributed on Saturdays in 1766 and 1767. Strict adherence to the project’s methodology meant featuring advertisements from the Providence Gazette two consecutive days every week. Yesterday I celebrated the inclusion of the Providence Gazette in this project. Similarly, the regular inclusion of advertisements from the Georgia Gazette, the only newspaper printed on Wednesdays, has enhanced the project by incorporating yet another newspaper from a smaller city. Yet drawing two out of every seven advertisements from the Providence Gazette seemed to do more than shift the emphasis away from exclusively examining the most significant commercial centers and the advertisements inserted in their more fully developed newspapers. On Mondays and Thursdays, printers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia issued multiple competing publications, each with a much, much greater array of advertising than appeared in the pages of the Providence Gazette, the Georgia Gazette, and other newspapers from smaller cities and towns. Strict adherence to the project’s methodology meant sometimes passing over important and interesting advertisements.

That prompted an adjustment to the methodology, but only as far as Sundays were concerned. (Keep in mind that Sundays in 1767 correspond to Wednesdays in 2017). The Adverts 250 Project continues to feature an advertisement originally published 250 years ago that day throughout most of the week. However, on the day that no newspapers were published the project now draws from any newspaper published during the previous week. This yields a better representation of advertising from early America. I will continue to consult newspapers from smaller cities regularly, but not at the expense of quite so disproportionately underrepresenting the multitude of publications from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

As a result of this modification, William Fisher’s advertisement for “Fine Hyson TEA” and other imported goods found its way into the Adverts 250 Project, displacing a second advertisement from the August 8, 1767, edition of the Providence Gazette. That issue featured only a page and a half of advertising, whereas newspapers from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia usually had at least two pages of advertising and some of them regularly distributed advertising supplements. That being the case, a slight adjustment to the project’s methodology, one that acknowledged its spirit and original intent, seemed appropriate and warranted.

May 12

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

May 12 - 5:12:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (May 12, 1766).

“William Fisher, In CORNHILL, HAS imported a general Assortment of English Goods which he sells at the cheapest Rates.”

Today’s featured advertisement appears fairly short and relatively basic when compared to many of the more extensive advertisements that crowded the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers. William Fisher’s advertisement, however, was not unique. Many advertisers opted for this sort of short commercial notice. Some may not have been able to afford more space in the newspaper. Others may not have been as innovative in their thinking, compared to their competitors, about how to incite demand among potential customers. Some may have depended on networks of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to sustain their shops, believing that an abbreviated advertisement served as sufficient reminder of the wares they offered for sale.

I’ve chosen this advertisement to feature today as a means of correcting an oversight. In the process of selecting advertisements to examine I have privileged some and disproportionately excluded others, especially the plethora of short commercial notices that were familiar to colonial readers.

I’ve also selected this advertisement because even though it is short enough to fit entirely in a modern tweet it still incorporated three common marketing appeals that tell us about eighteenth-century consumer culture. Fisher made an appeal to price when he noted that “he sells at the cheapest Rates.” He expected that low prices would help to attract customers. He also stressed that he offered choices to his customers, “a general Assortment.” Upon visiting his shop customers could expect to make purchases based on their own tastes rather than accept whatever happened to be in stock. Fisher may not have found it necessary to pay to print an exhaustive list of his merchandise. Other shopkeepers already did so, which meant that Fisher could depend on readers already being familiar with what was available in Boston. Finally, he stated that he had “imported … English Goods.” Consuming wares imported from England helped colonists feel connected to fellow Britons on the other side of the Atlantic. Though they resided thousands of miles away, they shared a British identity.

William Fisher’s advertisement seems deceptively short considering how much it tells us about early American consumer culture.