May 7

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

May 7 - 5:7:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 7, 1768).


How much influence did eighteenth-century advertisers exert when it came to designing their advertisements? This notice placed by prolific advertisers Joseph Russell and William Russell complicates the usual answer to that question.

In most instances advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to determine format. The publication of the same advertisement in multiple newspapers with consistent copy but significant deviations in layout, font size, and other visual aspects testifies to the division between advertisers as copywriters and compositors as designers. Yet on relatively rare occasions some advertisements retained specific visual elements, such as a decorative border, across multiple publications, indicating that an advertiser did indeed have a hand in determining the format. In general, most colonial newspapers exhibited an internal logic when it came to the appearance of advertisements. Compositors tended to standardize the appearance of paid notices within their publication depending on genre (consumer goods and services, legal notices, runaway slaves, for example), even as the copy differed from advertisement to advertisement. Advertisers often resorted to formulaic language and accepted patterns for including information, contributing to that standardization of visual elements.

The advertisements in the Providence Gazette, however, displayed far less consistency when it came to graphic design. Compared to counterparts at other newspapers, the compositor seems to have been much more interested in experimenting with how to use type to create distinctive advertisements even when those advertisements were comprised entirely of text. Does the compositor deserve exclusive credit for such innovations? Or did the variations emerge as the result of consultations with advertisers?

Although the advertisement the Russells placed in the May 7, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette does not provide any definitive answers, its various elements suggest some level of collaboration. It featured a headline that listed a product rather than the names of the advertisers. Their names appeared at the end of the notice, quite unusual for advertisements that promoted consumer goods and services. The dual columns listing their wares differed from the structure of most, but not all, other advertisements recently published in that newspaper. The Russells may have worked closely with the compositor. Alternately, they may have noticed how the compositor experimented with type in previous issues of the Providence Gazette and decided to alter the copy they submitted in order to facilitate further innovations. Even if they did not directly consult the compositor, they may have been inspired to pursue their own experiment in composing copy to see how those advertisements would then appear in print. Whether initiated by compositors or advertisers, one innovation in the appearance of paid notices in the Providence Gazette may have sparked a series of other innovations that resulted in advertisements for consumer goods and services in that newspaper exhibiting greater distinctiveness among themselves compared to the static appearance of most advertisements published in other newspapers.

April 23

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

Apr 23 - 4:23:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 23, 1768).


The compositor who labored “at the PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” in the spring of 1768 experimented with the typography for several advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette.  This notice for “A most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS” sold by frequent advertisers Joseph and William Russell incorporated the most significant variations in font size, but several others also featured headlines printed in oversized fonts relative to the remainder of the dense content that appeared throughout the rest of the Providence Gazette.  In the Russells’ advertisement, the word “GOODS” was printed in all capitals in the largest font and spaced to fill an entire line on its own. Their names, also all capitals (except the abbreviation for William) appeared in a slightly smaller font and the word “JUST IMPORTED” in a font still slightly smaller.  Almost every line of their advertisement featured font sizes noticeably larger than those used in the bulk of advertisements and news items in the same issue.  In the late 1760s the Providence Gazetteregularly published some of the most innovative and experimental typography in its advertisements compared to other newspapers printed elsewhere in the colonies.  The same advertisement likely would have been condensed to just a few lines in most other publications.

Although the Russells’ notice contained the most variation in font size and spacing, a few other advertisements also had headlines composed in larger font that distinguished them from the rest and drew readers’ eyes.  “THURBER AND CAHOON” occupied three lines, with the names of the partners in the same size font as “GOODS” in the Russells’ advertisement.  The words “A FARM” appeared in all capitals and the same size font in a notice placed by John Lyon and Benjamin Lyon.  In their advertisements, the names of Nathaniel Jacobs and James Arnold also appeared in the largest font, but not in all capitals. Still, the size of the text made their advertisements particularly easy to spot on a page of densely formatted text. Although some of the other advertisements had their own headlines in fonts slightly larger than most of the text, none of the news items had headlines or otherwise distinctive typography to steer readers to them.  Whether the compositor deserves sole credit for the innovative visual elements of those advertisements cannot be determined from examining the advertisements alone. One or more advertisers may have collaborated with the compositor, prompting others to request layouts that imitated what they saw in the notices published their competitors.  Either way, the visual presentation of advertising in the Providence Gazettediffered significantly from the visual presentation of news items.  This suggests that advertising led the way in reconceptualizing the ways in which the appearance of text on the page directed readers to particular content in newspapers.

March 19

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

Mar 19 - 3:19:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 19, 1768).

“Their assortment is very large.”

In their efforts to convince prospective customers of the many choices available at their shop at “the Sign of the GOLDEN EAGLE,” Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement exceptional for its length in the March 19, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. Unlike most advertisements in colonial newspapers, their list of goods extended more than a column, dominating the third page of the issue. In it, the Russells named everything from “Beautiful black figured sattin” to “Paper hangings for rooms” to “Pewter dishes and plates” to “The best Scotch snuff.” In effect, they presented a catalog of their merchandise to the public.

Yet the Russells did not merely list their extensive inventory. They also provided descriptions that further developed their marketing strategy. For instance, rather than listing “Irish linens” they instead proclaimed that they stocked “A Large and neat assortment of Irish Linens, of all widths and prices.” They emphasized variety for other types of goods as well, including “A neat and genteel assortment of dark ground calicoes and chintz,” “a neat assortment of brass candlesticks,” “A large assortment of saddlers ware, Compleat assortment of shoemakers tools, A large assortment of files,” “A beautiful assortment of china cups and saucers,” and “A variety of new fashioned stuffs.”

In addition, the Russells promoted the selection of colors available for many of their textiles and adornments, such as “Single and double damask of all colours,” “Sewing silk of all colours, Silk knee straps of all colours,” and “German serges of all colours.” For other items they emphasized variations in price, including “Black Barcelona handkerchiefs of all prices,” “Shaloons, tammies and durants, of all prices,” “Mens common worsted [silk hose] of al prices,” and “Ivory and horn combs of all prices.” They combined those appeals when describing “Broadcloths of all colours and prices,” encouraging potential customers to imagine all the possible varieties.

When it came to housewares and tools, the Russells highlighted variations in sizes and types, suggesting consumers could find items that fit their tastes, needs, and desires. These included “Brass kettles of all sizes,” “Snuff boxes of all sorts,” “Looking glasses of all sizes,” “Blankets of all widths,” “Gimblets of all sizes,” “Brads and tacks of all sorts,” and “Hinges, locks and latches of all sorts and sizes.” They provided even more detail about “THE very best hemp cordage, of all sizes, from a ratline to a 4 and an half inch rope.”

In their brief remarks that followed this list of goods the Russells even more explicitly made an appeal to consumer choice: “As their assortment is very large, customers will have the advantage of a fine choice.” In so doing, they confirmed the strategies they had adopted concerning the space the advertisement occupied on the page and the reiteration of words that emphasized a wide selection of goods throughout the notice.

December 19

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

Dec 19 - 12:19:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 19, 1767).

“By far the largest and best Assortment in this Town.”

In their attempt to incite consumer demand and attract customers, Joseph and William Russell filled their advertisement for “English, India, and Hard-Ware GOODS” with superlatives. Not content to rely on adjectives commonly used in retail advertisements (“large, neat, and compleat”) to describe their assortment of goods, they proclaimed that their inventory was “by far the largest and best Assortment in this Town.” Potential customers did not need to even entertain the notion of browsing in other shops because the Russells were certain to carry all the items they needed and wanted.

In case their selection alone did not entice consumers, the Russells guaranteed the lowest prices in Providence. They promised to sell “as CHEAP, if not CHEAPER, than any Person in this Town,” a claim that both Jonathan Russell and Thompson and Arnold disputed in their advertisements on the following page. The former advised consumers that he was “determined to sell at the very cheapest rate,” while the latter declared that they were “determined to sell as low as can be bought in any Shop or Store in this Town, or any other in New-England.” The Russells expressed confidence in their ability to charge the lowest prices because “they purchased [their goods] in England themselves.” Six weeks earlier they published a full-page advertisement that provided more explanation. William Russell had just returned from a trip to England and “brought over with him a large, neat, and compleat Assortment of … GOODS … which he purchased from the first Hands.” Eliminating English merchants from their supply chain allowed the Russells to pass along savings to their customers.

For readers not yet convinced to patronize the Russells’ shop, they also presented an argument that their business promoted the local welfare and customers could consider buying from them an act of civic responsibility. The shopkeepers stated that since “their Trade tends greatly to the Benefit of this Town, and the Country round” that “they doubt not but all the good People … will favour them with their Custom, instead of such Shops as send all the Money they receive out of the Government.” In the late 1760s a trade imbalance between the colonies and England contributed to a scarcity of specie as retailers engaged in trade with English merchants. By acquiring their merchandise directly the producers, “from the best Hands” in England, the Russells remitted less specie to associates on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition, they imported their wares “directly from LONDON,” but some of their local competitors acquired their merchandise via Boston and New York, enriching neighboring colonies at the expense of Rhode Island.

The Russells argued that customers who chose their shop enjoyed multiple advantages. They immediately benefited from the large selection and low prices, but their decisions as consumers also had ramifications for the collective economic welfare of Providence and the surrounding area.

November 7

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

Nov 7 - 11:7:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 7, 1767).

WILLIAM RUSSELL is just arrived from London.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell frequently placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette after Sarah Goddard and her partners revived that publication in the late 1760s. The Russells ran advertisements innovative for both their appeals and their length, including a full-page advertisement that inspired other local shopkeepers to publish their own full-page advertisements. Yet the boldness and creativity of the Russells’ marketing efforts seemed to decline over time, possibly indicating that they might not have considered the returns worth the investment when it came to developing and paying for cutting-edge newspaper advertisements.

Then they once again published a full-page advertisement in the November 7, 1767, edition of the Providence Gazette. Like their earlier full-page advertisements, it invited prospective customers to visit “their STORE, the Sign of the GOLDEN EAGLE, near the Court-House” and promised low prices for a “large, neat, and compleat Assortment of English, India and Hard-Ware GOODS.”

Yet this advertisement featured one significant difference compared to all of their previous paid notices in the local newspaper. It informed consumers that “WILLIAM RUSSELL is just arrived from London,” where he had personally selected the merchandise now stocked at the Sign of the Golden Eagle. Given the time required to cross the Atlantic (twice!), William had been away from Providence for at least three months. He presumably spent some time in London, meeting with business associates and getting a sense of current tastes in the cosmopolitan center of the empire as well as visiting friends or relatives.

In William’s absence, Joseph oversaw their enterprises in Providence, including their advertising. This may explain why their advertisements became less bold and distinctive, if William was the partner more gifted and willing to take risks when it came to marketing. Joseph could have been a caretaker when it came to that aspect of their business, advertising only when necessary and following the standards already well established for advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers. William, on the other hand, may have infused new vigor into their marketing when he returned from his long trip. Taking out a full-page advertisement in a four-page publication was a bold way to announce his homecoming and draw attention to the family business.

October 24

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

Oct 24 - 10:24:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (October 24, 1767).

“Just imported from LONDON, by Joseph and William Russell …”

Joseph and William Russell placed this rather modest advertisement in the October 24, 1767, edition of the Providence Gazette. In length and format, it resembled other advertisements for consumer goods and services in the same issue, but regular readers might have wondered at the Russells’ restraint when it came to marketing the goods they imported from London. After all, nearly a year earlier the Russells placed a full-page advertisement in the Providence Gazette, an advertisement that ran several times over the course of the next few months.

When they discontinued that advertisement, their consumer notices still tended to include some sort of innovative strategy that distinguished them from other advertisements. In January, for instance, they explained that their “Assortment [of goods] is too large for an Advertisement of Particulars in this Paper.” Even a full-page advertisement did not provide enough space to do any sort of justice to their inventory, they chided, so they left it to curious readers to conjure images of the “Assortment” of textiles, housewares, groceries, and hardware they would encounter when they visited the Russells’ shop “at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.” Deploying a “less is more” approach, they prompted consumers to do the imaginative work formerly accomplished by their elaborate list of goods that filled an entire page in the newspaper (and saved money on advertising in the process). Yet that strategy depended on their clever remark about the newspaper not having enough space to list their merchandise.

The Russells did not attempt any of that playfulness in their newest advertisement. They did resort to the standard “&c. &c. &c.” to suggest they carried more goods than the few items enumerated in their advertisement. They also made standard appeals to price and quality, but they did not insert anything that distinguished their advertisement from others published in newspapers throughout the colonies. Why not?

This merits further attention as the Adverts 250 Project continues to examine advertisements placed by Joseph and William Russell. If they never again published innovative advertisements after experimenting with a full-page advertisement and other clever appeals that could suggest that they determined that the effort and expense did not yield the desired results. Perhaps they determined that such marketing ploys were not any more effective than following the standard format. On the other hand, if they returned to publishing more elaborate advertisement that could indicate that they decided that such notices generated enough business to justify running them (and incurring the expense) once again. Either way, subsequent advertisements placed by the Russells may provide indirect evidence for assessing readers’ reception of their marketing efforts.

August 22

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

Aug 22 - 8:22:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 22, 1767).

“A large Assortment of English Goods and Hard-Ware.”

Joseph and William Russell were among Sarah Goddard and Company’s most loyal advertisers in the Providence Gazette. Even when the publication experienced a lull in paid notices during the winter and into the spring of 1767, the Russells continued to place advertisements for the imported goods they sold at their shop at the Sign of the Golden Eagle. On occasion, their full-page advertisement dominated the entire newspaper.

Some of their other advertisements were more modest, but even as they placed notices for purposes other than marketing their goods the Russells made sure to remind readers and potential customers that they “have to sell a large Assortment of English Goods and Hard-Ware” at low prices. Such was the case in this advertisement announcing that they sought tenants to rent “a Convenient Dwelling-House” in the northern part of Providence. This was not the first time they adopted such a strategy in their advertisements. Six months earlier they had evenly divided the space in a previous advertisement, first issuing a call for prospective renters for what might have been the same “Convenient Dwelling-House” and then hawking their “compleat Assortment of English GOODS” and, especially, “Excellent Bohea Tea, which for smell and flavor, exceeds most any ever imported.”

The Russells’ advertisement from August 1767 was not nearly as elaborate, yet the shopkeepers still determined that it should fulfill multiple purposes. They may have figured that as long as circumstances forced them once again to advertise a house for rent in the Providence Gazette that they might as well attempt to gain as much of a return on their investment in advertising as possible. Greater numbers of competitors had turned to the local newspaper to advertise throughout the spring and summer. Having previously established their reputation as retailers in the public prints, Joseph and William Russell reminded readers that they sold similar merchandise also advertised by William Brown, John Mathewson, Benjamin West, and others elsewhere in the issue.

February 28

GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney

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

Providence Gazette (February 28, 1767).

“Excellent Bohea Tea.”

This advertisement directed colonists to “the Sign of the Golden Eagle” in Providence to buy a variety of English goods imported from London as well as other goods that passed through London, including Bohea Tea. During the colonial period the colonists heavily invested in the importation of luxury goods and general commodities from London and other territories of the British Empire. The purchase of imported goods from across the Empire showcased colonists’ view of themselves as subjects of the British crown, thereby possessing the same rights as other Britons.

In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen draws attention to the common language of consumer culture throughout the colonies that helped join the colonists in a common language of complaints and issues regarding the British taxes on imported goods. He draws attention to the Tea Act of 1773, which drew particular ire towards British rule due to the place tea held at the time as a staple of American life, available to “the wealthiest of merchants and the poorest of labourers.”[1] It’s really remarkable how such a simple product could spark the tinder of a socio-political revolution, and turn it into a raging wildfire that could bring about a new nation. I can only liken the colonists’ response to the tax on tea to the response modern day Americans might have if coffee beans were suddenly subject to special taxes.



Joseph and William Russell certainly stocked “a large and compleat Assortment of English GOODS” at their shop, at least according to the full-page advertisement that appeared in the Providence Gazette a week earlier. Most likely the Russells could have depended on readers to remember that advertisement because it had been included in several issues since late November 1766, running for a few weeks at a time, disappearing for a few issues, and then appearing once again. As I have previously suggested, it is not clear if its publication history resulted from directions by the Russells or instead from the printers attempting to fill space when lacking other content or possibly a combination of the two.

Even in the absence of their full-page advertisement, the Russells maintained a presence in the Providence Gazette, regularly publishing shorter advertisements, such as the one featured today, to remind potential customers of the merchandise they offered “at the Sign of the Golden Eagle.” In so doing, they resorted to some of the most common marketing strategies of the eighteenth century – appeals to choice and price – even when they did not provide a list of their wares.

Like many other shopkeepers who placed short advertisements, they selected one product to highlight. In this case, as Sam has noted, they promoted their “Excellent Bohea Tea.” To draw attention to this commodity, they advanced yet another sort of appeal by underscoring its quality. In terms of its “smell and flavor,” the Russells’ tea “exceeds most any ever imported.” That was a bold claim to make, one that virtually challenged readers to purchase this tea and decide for themselves whether such a description was warranted. Without being heavy-handed about it, the Russells also made a nod toward the luxury consumers could expect to experience when they drank this “Excellent Bohea Tea.”

The Russells managed to incorporate multiple appeals – choice, price, quality, luxury – into just a couple of lines of advertising copy. Shrewdly promoting one notable product may have also generated additional foot traffic into their shop, exposing potential customers to the “compleat Assortment of English GOODS” they carried.


[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 87.

February 22

GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Holleran

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

Providence Gazette (February 21, 1767).

“Powder horns.”

The “Powder horns” near the end of Joseph and William Russell’s full-page advertisement made me curious. I discovered that a powder horn was used for holding gun powder (which the Russells also sold).

Many powder horns from this period have intricate engravings on them. Some people took up horn carving as an occupation. One of the best-known horn carvers of this time period was Jacob Gay, who often carved his initials onto the powder horns he created. Historians are now able to spot the artwork he created by the “J G” engraved on a powder horn.

Powder horn engraved by Jacob Gay (dated 1759).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Visit the museum’s online record for this object to see additional photos and other eighteenth-century powder horns.

Many powder horns have specific styles based on the period they were made and the battles that occurred at that time. Powder horns decorated just before and during the American Revolution often indicated New England’s anti-British feelings. Also, many of the engraved horns depicted battles fought during the Revolution. In addition to being used to reflect battles, powder horn engravings were also expressive of camp life during the Revolution.

In the midst of the Revolution, many powder horns were also used as forms of identification. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, many soldiers began engraving their names or initials on their powder horns. As a result, historians are now able to identify many of the soldiers who fought in battles of the Revolution.

For more information and examples, see William H. Guthman’s “Powder Horns Carved in the Provincial Manner, 1744-1777.”



Joseph and William Russell’s full-page advertisement, the first published in the Providence Gazette, first appeared three months earlier, on November 22, 1766. Since then, it ran multiple times, either because the Russells were keen on advertising or because Mary Goddard and Company needed any sort of content to fill the pages when faced with the combination of a dearth of new paid notices and post riders carrying news from other colonies chronically arriving too late for any of it to appear in the current issue. As a result, residents of Providence and readers of the newspaper printed there were exposed to the Russells’ full-page advertisement on many occasions.

Due to the prominence and frequency it appeared in late 1766 and early 1767, this advertisement has also reappears fairly regularly as a point of reference when examining other paid notices in the Providence Gazette – or trying to explain the absence of those notices. While the methodology for the project, when strictly observed, prohibits featuring this advertisement a second time, there’s room for making exceptions when doing so yields productive observations about advertising practices and consumer culture in eighteenth-century America.

Shannon is the first student in my Revolutionary America class to take on responsibilities for guest curating the Adverts 250 Project. In turn, this is the first time students in that class have encountered the Russells’ advertisement, giving us an opportunity to discuss what was possible when it came to advertising in the revolutionary era compared to what was much more common. Revisiting this advertisement serves a second pedagogical purpose. For her work in preparing today’s entry, Shannon considered the variety of goods listed in this lengthy advertisement before choosing one to examine in greater detail. In the end, she took a closer look at an item not previously incorporated into the Adverts 250 Project, simultaneously expanding her own knowledge about an aspect of early American material culture and enhancing the project.

Finally, by choosing this advertisement Shannon contributes to an ongoing analysis of the advertising content of the Providence Gazette. This advertisement repeatedly occupied one-quarter of the space in any issue in which it appeared, quite a bit of space for the printers to yield. As mentioned above, Goddard and Company seemed to have difficulty attracting advertisers, especially when comparing their newspaper to counterparts published in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. That is a story that could not be told if the Russells’ full-page advertisement were permanently excluded from further consideration simply because the Adverts 250 Project previously featured it.


January 17

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

Providence Gazette (January 17, 1767).

“A Very large and new Assortment consisting of almost every Kind suitable for Town and Country.”

Regular readers of the Providence Gazette may have raised their eyebrows when they encountered Joseph and William Russell’s claim that “Their Assortment [of consumer goods] is too large for an Advertisement of Particulars in this Paper.” Such an assertion belied the numerous lengthy list advertisements that appeared in American newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. More significantly, it contradicted the Russells’ recent marketing strategies in the Providence Gazette itself. Less than two months earlier, the Russells had inaugurated the first full-page advertisement in that publication, a commercial notice divided into three columns that listed hundreds of items from their “large Assortment of English Goods and Braziery Ware.” The Russells placed that advertisement multiple times over the next several weeks before yielding the space to other advertisers, shopkeepers who also experimented with full-page advertising once they observed competitors initiate the practice. Almost every issue of the Providence Gazette published since late November included a full-page advertisement on the final page.

That may explain the remarkable statement that “an Advertisement of Particulars” from among the Russells’ “Very large and new Assortment” of goods was “too large” to be included “in this Paper.” That portion of the advertisement may not have been written by either of the Russells but may have instead been an editorial comment inserted by the printers. Perhaps “this Paper” referred specifically to that particular issue, already filled with other content, including a full-page list advertisement for Thompson and Arnold’s “Shop near the Great Bridge.” If the suspect claim was indeed an editorial explanation, it might also have been a promise that a more complete accounting of the Russells’ “Fresh GOODS, JUST IMPORTED FROM LONDON” would appear in a subsequent issue.

At any rate, the comment rang particularly false because the Russells’ advertisement appeared in the first column on the first page of that issue (perhaps given such a prominent place – the only advertisement that appeared on the front page of a newspaper that usually reserved paid notices for the final two pages – as a consolation for the printer not being able to accommodate a larger or lengthier advertisement). As a result, the Russells’ advertisement was printed directly to the right of Thompson and Arnold’s full-page advertisement before the broadsheet was folded in half to create a four-page issue. Although separated as the first and last pages most of the time, those two advertisements appeared next to each other any time a reader opened the newspaper. In the absence of listing their merchandise, the Russells resorted to promising that “Customers may have a fine Choice,” enough variety to compete with the hundreds of items Thompson and Arnold listed in their advertisement elsewhere in the same issue.