GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Choice Bohea Tea.”
In this notice in the Connecticut Courant, William Lamson advertised different goods, such as “Bohea Tea,” “Cod Fish,” and “Black Barcelona Handkerchiefs.” Lamson sold his goods at the stores of Ebenezer Bernard in Hartford and Oliver Pomeroy at Rockey-Hill.
Drinking tea was an important part of colonial life. Drinking tea was a symbol of status in England; this was true in colonial society also. According to Rodris Roth, “During the first half of the eighteenth century the limited amount of tea, available at prohibitively high prices, restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the population. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased, due in part to the propaganda and merchandising efforts of the East India Company.” (Bohea tea, a category of black and oolong teas, originates from China. The East India Company acquired it and distributed it to England and the colonies.) As tea became more accessible more people were able to buy it and partake in the social rituals of drinking tea.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
William Lamson’s advertisement for tea, codfish, handkerchiefs, sugar, and mackerel included a rather unique feature. He included a price for each of the items listed. Eighteenth-century advertisements rarely included prices. Advertisers that hawked only one or two commodities sometimes indicated their prices. Shopkeepers occasionally named a price for one or two items included in their lengthy lists of merchandise. It was rare, however, for any advertisement to match a price to every item offered for sale.
Lamson made it possible for potential customers to engage in comparison shopping more easily. He depended on readers remembering their recent purchases and having some general familiarity with the prices local shopkeepers charged for the popular commodities he sold. Many potential customers likely would have known at a glance if Lamson offered good deals. That made it unnecessary for him to resort to one of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertising, emphasizing low prices. Lamson did not need to underscore that these were low prices; readers would have made that determination on their own. Lamson also cultivated a sense of trust with prospective customers by letting them know in advance what they could expect to spend when they purchased any of these commodities from him.
On the other hand, Lamson may have also had some practical reasons for listing specific prices. As Ceara noted, he sold tea, sugar, and other goods “At Mr. Ebenezer Barnard’s in Hartford, and at Mr. Oliver Pomeroy’s at Rockey-Hill.” Lamson may never have been present at either location; instead, Bernard and Pomeroy may have sold his commodities on commission or by some other arrangement. By indicating specific prices, Lamson eliminated the possibility that potential customers would have to haggle with a third party. Lamson did not need to be present for transactions or empower agents to act on his behalf. His advertisement, with prices plainly indicated, could stand in on his behalf.
 Rodris Roth, “Tea Drinking in Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 442.