June 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (June 10, 1773).

“(The particulars in Monday’s papers.)”

After opening the “New Auction-Room” in Boston in 1773, auctioneer William Greenleaf sometimes deployed a two-step strategy for promoting upcoming sales in the public prints.  Consider the notice that he placed in the Massachusetts Spyon Thursday, June 10.  Greenleaf advised readers that a “great variety of English GOODS” “Will be sold by PUBLIC VENDUE” on the following Tuesday.  Rather than publish a roster of those items, he encouraged colonizers to look for subsequent advertisements with “The particulars in Monday’s papers.”  That meant that readers had to consult newspapers other than the Massachusetts Spy.  All five newspapers published in Boston in 1773 were weeklies, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy appearing on Thursdays and the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on Mondays.  The auction would be over by the time the printer published the next edition of the Massachusetts Spy.

Readers who turned to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy for “The particulars” on the following Monday did not encounter any additional information, but those who perused the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette did indeed discover a more complete preview of Greenleaf’s next auction.  In nearly identical advertisements, the auctioneer listed dozens of items, including “a fine Assortment of Chints, Callicoes and Printed Linens,” “a Number of Silver Watches,” and “a suit of Green Bed Curtains.”  The sale would begin “precisely at Ten o’clock” the next morning, so readers interested in bidding on any of the items needed to arrive in time that they did not miss that part of the sale.  Those advertisements likely contained information that had not yet been finalized the previous Thursday, yet given that Greenleaf competed with several other auctioneers in Boston he wished to generate some level of visibility for his next vendue, especially since those other auctioneers regularly advertised in multiple newspapers as well.  As advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers came and went in the public prints, notices from auctioneers, updated weekly, remained a constant feature in the city’s many newspapers.  In this instance, Greenleaf oversaw an advertising campaign that he updated more than once a week, coordinating with multiple printing offices.

April 11

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 8, 1773).

“He will open a Place for Sale of Goods to be known by the Name of The Silent Auction-Room.”

When he established the “Silent Auction-Room” in Boston in the spring of 1773, A. Bowman did not even pretend politeness toward his competitors in his advertisements.  In a notice that he placed in the April 8 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, he mocked the advertisements placed by three of his competitors.  All three advertisements appeared in that issue, making for easy reference for readers, though Bowman previously encountered them in other newspapers.

The auctioneer stated that he would “receive and sell all Sorts of Merchandise, House-Furniture,” and other goods.  However, “‘Houses, Lands and Shipping,’ he does not pretend to sell,” he snidely comments, “because he is apprehensive it would be very difficult to get them up Stairs.”  Bowman quoted directly from William Greenleaf’s advertisement.  His rival stated, “In the Sale of Houses, Lands, Shipping, Merchandize, Household Furniture, &c. &c. my Employers may depend on my exerting myself for their Interest.”

The cantankerous auctioneer then declared that “Goods from ‘Servants and Minors’ will be received if they are properly authorized to deliver them.”  In this instance, he taunted Martin Bicker, a broker who handled “all sorts of English and Scotch Goods [and] Household Furniture … to as good Advantage as can be done at any Auction whatever.”  Bicker proclaimed that “the Public may rest assured, that no Goods will be received by him of any Servants or Minors.”  Bowman established a different policy for his “Silent Auction-Room.”  He took another jab at Bicker when he asserted that “His ‘Books’ shall be kept in good Order, so that it gives him no Concern whether they are ‘liable to Inspection,’ or not.”  Before noting that he did not accept goods from servants or minors, presumably to avoid peddling stolen items, Bicker confided that “his Books are not liable to Inspection.”  Bowman treated such lack of transparency with skepticism.

The final portion of Bowman’s advertisement, a short poem, most directly addressed the source of his anger and frustration.  Joseph Russell, the proprietor of an auction room on Queen Street, previously published an advertisement that concluded with a poem that promoted his own business and mocked the demise of Bowman’s auction house.  In addition to the poem, Russell announced that he “received a License from the Gentlemen Select-Men, to be an Auctioneer for the Town of Boston, conformable to the late Act for that Purpose.”  Similarly, Greenleaf trumpeted that the “Gentlemen Select-Men … approbated me to officiate as one of the Vendue-Masters [or auctioneers] for this Town.”  Bicker carefully described himself as a broker and made clear to prospective clients that his services rivaled those offered by auctioneers.

Boston Evening-Post (March 29, 1773).

Bowman apparently did not receive a license.  In advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on March 22 and in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on March 25, he referred to his business as “BOWMAN’s Dying Auction-Room.”  His advertisement in the March 29 edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured a thick black border, a symbol of death and mourning in early American print culture.  Bowman lamented that his auction room “is soon to be sacrificed for the Good of the Province” and that he will be legally dead, (the taking away a Man’s Bread or his Life being synonymous) before another News-Paper comes out.”  That advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette on the same day, though without the mourning border that clearly indicated how Bowman felt about the situation.  That explains why Bowman described himself as the “late Auctioneer” at the “Dead Auction-Room” in his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on April 8.  That he proposed opening a “Silent Auction-Room” suggests he identified some sort of loophole to defy the licensing act, perhaps as a broker rather than an auctioneer.  In subsequent advertisements, he noted that he sold goods on commission.

Russell observed Bowman’s commentary in his advertisements, prompting him to allude to it in the poem he included in his own notice: “While some this Stage of Action quit, / And Dying advertise; / For Cash the Buyers here may meet / With constant fresh Supplies.”  Not done with his own editorializing about his competitor, Russell added another stanza: “For Favors past, due Thanks return’d; / New Bargains, cheap and dear, / At the Old Place may still be found / J. RUSSELL, Auctioneer.”  Russell pointedly declared that his business continued at a location familiar to residents of Boston.

In response, Bowman published his own poem at the end of his advertisement.  “A License granted! pray for what? / To show their Parts in Rhyme; / But hear the Tale the Dead will rise, / And that in proper Time.”  Bowman did not think much of Russell’s poetry nor his abilities as an auctioneer.  At the same time, he pledged to revive his business, a footnote indicating that the public could anticipate that happening “When the expected Ships discharge their Cargoes.” Bowman critiqued the licensing act in a final stanza: “Fair LIBERTY thou Idol great, / How narrow is thy Sphere! / Ye Men of Sense say where she dwells, / For sure she reigns not here.”  As colonizers in Boston debated the extent that Parliament infringed on their liberties, Bowman asserted that the new act, a local ordinance, curtailed liberty in the city.

By and large, auctioneers and other advertisers usually ignored their competitors.  The angry and defiant Bowman, however, did not do so.  Instead, he mocked several of the auctioneers and brokers who advertised in Boston’s newspapers, parroting their notices when he taunted them.  He also continued to protest the new licensing act that caused him to close his auction room.  In addition to promoting his next endeavor, the “Silent Auction-Room,” he used advertisements as a means of disseminating his commentary on the state of affairs in Boston.

November 9

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

Nov 9 - Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (November 9, 1769).

“The Whole of which were imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.”

William Greenleaf’s advertisement in the November 9, 1769, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter looked much like others that promoted consumer goods. Extending half a column, it listed a vast assortment of items available at his shop, everything from “Silk & worsted Sagathies” to “Ivory, Bone, & Ebony Fans” to “Necklaces and Earings of various sorts” to Persia Carpets three yards square.” In addition to its celebration of consumer culture and encouragement for colonists to acquire more goods, Greenleaf’s advertisement also addressed the politics of the day. The shopkeeper assured the entire community that his entire inventory had been “imported by himself before the Non-Importation Agreement took Place.” In so doing, he protected his reputation and signaled to prospective customers that they could buy his wares without compromising their political principles.

When it came to advertising textiles and accessories, the bulk of Greenleaf’s merchandise, most merchants and shopkeepers emphasized how recently their goods had arrived in the colonies. “Just Imported” implied that these items represented the latest fashions from London and other English cities. In 1769, however, this popular appeal no longer possessed its usual power to entice prospective customers. New merchandise was politically problematic merchandise. The merchants and traders of Boston and other towns in Massachusetts adopted nonimportation agreements to protest the duties Parliament imposed on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea. If Parliament intended to tax those items, then colonists resolved not to import an even greater array of goods from Britain. The goods that merchants and shopkeepers stocked and sold possessed political significance based on when those items arrived in the colonies.

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists observed the commercial practices of their friends, neighbors, and other members of their communities. Greenleaf realized that all merchants and shopkeepers were under scrutiny to detect if they violated the nonimportation agreement. Committees investigated suspected violations and published names and accounts of their actions in newspapers, alerting consumers not to do business with them and warning others to abide by the agreement. In such an environment, Greenleaf considered it imperative to assert that he sold merchandise that did not breach the nonimportation agreement. In his business practices, he expressed a commitment to the patriot cause.