May 25

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

May 25 - 5:25:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1767).

“Very handsome Ivory Paddle Fans,

Bone Stick and Ebony Ditto,

Womens silk Mitts and Gloves.”

The layout of William Palfrey’s advertisement for “A fresh Assortment of English Piece Goods” distinguished it from most other commercial notices published in the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers in the 1760s. The shopkeeper listed much of his merchandise, but he did not resort to a paragraph of dense text or dividing the advertisement into two columns with one or two items on each line. Instead, he chose a couple of items for each line, specifying that every line be centered. This created quite a different visual effect in contrast to other advertisements that were crisply justified on the left and quite often on the right as well. Compare Palfrey’s advertisement to Daniel McCarthy’s advertisement, which appeared immediately to the left. Readers likely found Palfrey’s layout disorienting in comparison, especially since every advertisement on the page followed the style adopted by McCarthy. Palfrey’s disorienting layout thus made his advertisement the most noticeable advertisement on the page, giving him an edge over ten other shopkeepers.

May 25 - 5:25:1767 McCarthy in Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1767).

Although advertisers usually generated copy and printers determined layout, it seems clear that Palfrey had a hand in designing the unique visual aspects of his advertisement. He placed the same notice in the Boston-Gazette on May 25, 1767. It featured almost identical format and layout. All of the same words appeared in capitals or italics. Certain lines appeared in larger font: not just “William Palfrey” and the first line of the list of goods (both of which would have been standard in any advertisement in any newspaper) but also “Tippets and Turbans,” items that the shopkeeper apparently wanted to emphatically bring to the attention of potential customers. A manicule directs readers to Palfrey’s promise to sell “very low for CASH” at the conclusion of the advertisement in both newspapers.

Very few advertisements for consumer goods and services included visual images in the eighteenth century, but that did not prevent some advertisers from attempting to distinguish their notices from those placed by their competitors. Although Palfrey advanced many of the same appeals, he devised another sort of innovation in marketing his wares.

January 26

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

Boston-Gazette (January 26, 1767).

“My Good Customers and others will excuse my not promising to sell CHEAPER than can be bought elsewhere.”

William Palfrey frequently advertised in the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers printed in the city. His placed notices of various lengths, such as this list advertisement that extended for an entire column. As a preamble to this extensive account of his merchandise, Palfrey inserted much of the standard language and made several of the most common appeals. His method of advertising looked familiar to potential customers because Palfrey understood all the conventions of newspaper advertising in eighteenth-century America. Among those conventions, he made an appeal to price, promising that “he will sell at the very lowest Rates by Wholesale or Retail.”

That was not Palfrey’s last word, however, when it came to the price of his goods. He concluded his advertisement with a short paragraph that advised readers that “The above Goods will be sold as CHEAP as any of the same Quality in Town. My Good Customers and others will excuse my not promising to sell CHEAPER than can be bought of elsewhere; as such promises, though frequently made, are seldom comply’d with, and are only calculated to impose on Persons who are not well acquainted with the Quality of Goods.” In so doing, Palfrey echoed a sentiment that Gilbert Deblois had recently expressed in his advertisements. That other shopkeeper explained that he did not indicate prices of specific items in his advertisements because everyone knew that goods “differ so much in Quality.”

In making these observations, Palfrey and Deblois indicated that they were aware that potential customers, at least savvy ones, did not take all of the claims made in advertisements at face value. While recognizing that readers would naturally be suspicious of the appeals advanced in their own advertisements, both shopkeepers sought to turn such skepticism to their advantage. By acknowledging that there was room for subterfuge in advertising, especially that deception might be practiced by others, they encouraged readers to have greater trust in them to deal fairly. After all, when they admitted that they could not get away with pulling the wool over customers’ eyes that put the shopkeepers in the position of only being able to transact business as honest brokers.

January 5

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

Boston Evening-Post (January 5, 1767).

“A general Assortment of English and India GOODS, consisting of the following Articles.”

William Palfrey’s lengthy list advertisement, which comprised almost the entire third column of the January 5, 1767, issue of the Boston Evening-Post, fulfilled a promise made in a much shorter advertisement inserted in the previous issue. Confined to a single “square” of advertising space, the earlier advertisement announced that Palfrey had just imported “A general Assortment of English and India GOODS, consisting of many Articles.” The final line of the notice indicated that “[The particular Articles will be in our next].” A week later the same short announcement appeared, though this time as a header for a list of dozens of items divided into two columns. The phrase “consisting of many Articles” had been updated to “consisting of the following Articles,” a more appropriate introduction for the list that followed, but otherwise the content and format for the header remained the same.

It would be reasonable to conclude that the printers of the Boston Evening-Post made a decision to truncate Palfrey’s lengthy advertisement in the interest of space. After all, colonial newspapers often included some sort of notice that due to space restrictions some advertisements that had been omitted would appear in the next issue. That could have been the case in this instance, but another explanation places the decision in the hands of the advertiser rather than the printers.

Perhaps Palfrey decided to insert the first advertisement with its promise of a lengthier catalog of merchandise to appear later as a means of inciting interest and anticipation among prospective customers. The advertisement invited readers to consult the pages of the Boston Evening-Post once again, prompting them to look for Palfrey’s advertisement specifically amid all of those from his competitors. Palfrey may have calculated this as a strategy to overshadow other advertisements, especially if he did not have sufficient time to draw up a list of merchandise that had been “just imported in the Brig Lydia, Captain Scott, from LONDON.” The shipping news supplied by the Customs House in the December 29 issue indicated that the Lydia had arrived only two days earlier. Palfrey likely did not have time to compile a complete inventory of his newly arrived merchandise, but did not want to wait a week to inform potential customers about his “general Assortment of English and India GOODS.” The shorter advertisement simultaneously allowed him to spread the word to eager customers and to encourage anticipation among curious readers who might choose to visit his shop only after previewing the merchandise listed in a subsequent advertisement.

September 25

GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Commesso

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

Massachusetts Gazette (September 25, 1766).

“Woolens and other Articles suitable for the approaching Season.”

By beginning with the location of his shop, William Palfrey’s advertisement for his “Assortment of Goods” was able to attract fresh clientele that were unfamiliar with his establishment. He made a point to put the location directly following his name, and, interestingly enough, what his shop was next to: “next Door North of the Heart & Crown a well known emblem for the print shop where the Boston Evening-Post was printed.

Also, consider the significance of including where the goods had originated — in this case, London — alluding to the fact that many of these goods were not manufactured in the colonies at this time. According to T.H. Breen, “British goods flooded English colonies,” starting in the 1740s.[1] Palfrey adds that the varieties of “Broad-Cloths,” “Duffils,” and “other Woolens” would be very suitable for the upcoming changing of the seasons. Nearly every New England advertisement I examined mentioned the changing seasons, suggesting that the colonists adjusted their purchases to the varying conditions of the local climate. The changing weather conditions may not have been as extreme in the southern colonies, where the seasonal adjustments were not as significant. The advertisement prompted consumers to prepare for the upcoming change to a chillier fall and a cold winter.



Nick identifies an important aspect of William Palfrey’s advertisement in his examination of the section that promoted “many other Woolens and other Articles suitable for the approaching Season.” The autumnal equinox occurred just a few days before this advertisement was published. Fall had arrived. Colonists in Boston certainly would have been aware that seasons were changing, but Palfrey used his advertisement to draw potential customers into his shop by reminding them that they would soon need different sorts of clothing and other goods. Some readers would have stored fall and winter apparel during the spring and summer seasons, but Palfrey realized there was a good chance that even those who were most prepared likely needed replacements and supplements.

Nick raises a question about regional differences in advertising, noting that many advertisements that appeared in New England newspapers deployed appeals that stressed the goods for sale were appropriate for the season. This was also true of advertisements published in Philadelphia, a city that also experienced significant changes in weather throughout the year. Advertisements published there often used the phrase “suitable for the season” to describe the merchandise. Was that an appeal commonly used in other regions, especially the Chesapeake and the Lower South? I’m not certain. This project originated as a case study of advertising in Philadelphia, the largest city in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution and one of the centers of printing. I have not yet examined newspaper advertisements from southern colonies in the same depth. In his analysis of today’s advertisement, Nick has presented a question that merits further research as this project continues.


[1] T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1986): 486.