April 13

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

Essex Gazette (April 13, 1773).

“Said Hooks, also Cod-Lines, to be sold by WILLIAM VANS, in Salem.”

In the early 1770s, Abraham Cornish made “New-England Cod & Mackrell FISH-HOOKS … At his Manufactory” in Boston’s North End.  To promote his product, he placed advertisements in the Massachusetts Spy, printed in Boston, and in the Essex Gazette, printed in Salem in March and April 1773, hoping to capture the attention of fishermen in both maritime communities.  He presented his hooks as an alternative to those imported to the colonies, describing them as “the best Cod and Mackrell Hooks,” yet he did not ask prospective buyers to take his word for it.  Instead, he declared that “Fishermen who made Trial of his Hooks last Season, found them to correspond with his former Advertisement” in which he presented his hooks as “much superior to those imported from England.”

Cornish did not address solely the fisherman who would use his hooks.  He also called on those who supplied them to stock his hooks made in Boston in addition to those they acquired from England.  He set prices “as cheap by Wholesale for Cash on delivery” as imported hooks, hoping that the combination of price and quality would prompt retailers to add them to their inventory.  Cornish believed that various members of the community should demonstrate their interest in supporting the production of fish hooks in Boston, calling on “all Importers, and those concerned in the Fishery” to purchase his product.  To cultivate brand recognition, he noted that his hooks “are all marked A.C. on the Flat of the Stem of each Hook.”  In an earlier advertisement, he also noted that he packaged them in “paper … marked ABRHAM CORNISH” and called attention to his initials on each hook in order to “prevent deception” or counterfeit products.

To aid in distributing his wares, Cornish recruited a local agent in Salem.  His advertisement in the Essex Gazette stated that William Vans, a merchant who frequently placed his own advertisements, sold “Said Hooks.”  Vans, however, did not generate the copy for the notice about Cornish’s hooks.  The text replicated what appeared in the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, with the addition of a nota bene about the marks on each hook and an additional sentence identifying Vans as the local distributor.  The version in the Essex Gazette lacked the characteristic woodcut depicting a fish that adorned Cornish’s advertisements in the Massachusetts Spy.  Like most other advertisers who incorporated visuals images, Cornish apparently invested in only one woodcut.  He depended on the strength of the advertising copy when hawking his hooks in a second market.

November 24

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

Essex Gazette (November 24, 1772).

“William Vans sells / Allspice by the Bag, / Raisins by the Cask, / Flour by the Barrel.”

William Vans wanted to make sure that prospective customers knew about the goods he offered for sale in the fall of 1772.  Like other merchants and shopkeepers in Salem, Massachusetts, he placed advertisements in the Essex Gazette.  Unlike his competitors, however, he did not limit himself to one advertisement at a time.  Instead, he published multiple advertisements simultaneously, encouraging greater name recognition as readers encountered his notices over and over while perusing the newspaper.

The November 24 edition of the Essex Gazette featured four columns of advertising (out of twelve columns in the entire issue).  Three advertisements inserted by Vans appeared in those four columns, one longer notice and two shorter ones.  He could have made arrangements with the printer to consolidate the advertisements into a single notice, but apparently considered it more effective to have readers repeatedly return to his name and descriptions of his merchandise as they browsed through other advertisements promoting similar goods.

Vans once again ran his GOODS cheaper the cheapest” advertisement, a catalog of his inventory that rivaled other advertisements in length.  It included a revision to the final line, moving “Looking-Glasses” to a separate line and printing the word in a larger font to draw attention.  That Vans modified his advertisement in that manner demonstrates that he could have inserted additional content if he wished.

Instead, he opted to publish two shorter advertisements.  One consisted of only fifteen words on four lines: “William Vans sells / Allspice by the Bag, / Raisins by the Cask, / Flour by the Barrel.”  Vans likely believed those quick pronouncements, that reiterative tattoo of goods and their containers, made his advertisement as effective as any of the more elaborate notices.  He seems to have carefully selected his words to create a cadence that would resonate with readers.  He took a more traditional approach in his other short advertisement, stating that he had a “few quarter Casks old Teneriffe WINE” for sale, as well as “ALLSPICE by the Bag or less Quantity.”  He removed the portion about allspice when he published the advertisement the following week, once again suggesting an ability to revise, extend, and consolidate advertisements if he wished to do so.

Other merchants and shopkeepers occasionally adopted a similar strategy, publishing multiple advertisements in a single issue as a means of drawing greater attention to their names and their goods.  Most purveyors of goods and services, however, tended to run only one advertisement at a time during the era of weekly newspapers prior to the American Revolution.

November 10

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

Essex Gazette (November 10, 1772).

GOODS cheaper than the cheapest.”

William Vans ran a “Variety-Shop” in Salem in the early 1770s.  To incite interest in his wares, he regularly advertised in the Essex Gazette.  He often mentioned his low prices, comparing them to what consumers could expect to pay for the same merchandise in other shops.  For instance, in May 1771 he proclaimed that he sold his wares “as cheap as any Store in Town.”  Eighteen months later, he enhanced a similar appeal to price with a headline that made his marketing pitch.  “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest” appeared at the top of his advertisement in the November 10, 1772, edition of the Essex Gazette.  Vans intended the meaning of “cheap” as understood in the eighteenth century, promoting inexpensive wares without suggesting that low prices indicated inferior quality.  In the introduction to his extensive inventory, Vans declared that he set prices “as cheap or cheaper … than at any Shop in the County,” deciding to give his assertion more weight by expanding it beyond “any Store in Town.”

That Vans devised a headline with a marketing message distinguished his advertisement from others in the same issue.  William Scott advertised the “Essence of Pearl, and Pearl Dentifrice,” the toothpaste created by Jacob Hemet, “DENTIST to her Majesty, the Princess Amelia,” that he sold at his shop.  A headline that advised the product was “For the TEETH and GUMS” appeared at the beginning of the advertisement, but it did not make an explicit marketing appeal like Vans’s headline.  Most merchants and shopkeepers used their names, printed in larger font, as headlines.  Such was the case for John Appleton, “John & Andw. Cabot,” George Deblois, John Dyson, Samuel Flagg, Stephen Higginson, John Prince, and others.  Van’s name received similar treatment, but below the “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest” headline.  Some of those merchants and shopkeepers did make appeals to price in the introductions that came before their lists of merchandise.  Deblois, for instance, declared that “he will sell as cheap as is sold in any Shop or Store in Town, and as low as is sold in Boston, or elsewhere.”  John Appleton stated that “he is determined to sell at such very low Rates … as cannot fail to give full Satisfaction to every reasonable Purchaser.”  Those advertisers made appeals to price, but prospective customers encountered them only after wading into those notices.  Consumers did not have to read the smaller print in Vans’s advertisement to know that he claimed to sell “GOODS cheaper than the cheapest.”  In this instance, the format certainly enhanced the message.

March 21

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

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

Essex Gazette (March 21, 1769).

“CHOICE green Coffee.”

In this advertisement William Vans attempted to sell some items, including “CHOICE green Coffee.’ Green coffee had to do with the beans. Heather Baldus, the collections manager at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, says, “In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.” When roasting the person doing it had to make sure that the beans were constantly turning so they would not burn. Then the person could use a coffee grinder, which was common and inexpensive in Europe, although most people in the colonies used a mortar and pestle to turn the beans into a powder. Finally, the person would put the amount they wanted with water, either boiling or infusing it. In addition to drinking coffee at home, some colonists went to coffeehouses. Coffeehouses began to pop up in colonial America in the eighteenth century. They were a mixture of a café, tavern, and inn. During the consumer revolution, coffee became a staple drink for early Americans.



At a glance, William Vans’s advertisement for “CHOICE green Coffee” and other goods appears to be the same advertisement from the Essex Gazette that guest curator Luke DiCicco examined last week, a second insertion that ran in a subsequent issue. For the most part, that was indeed the case, but the notice that ran in the March 21, 1769, edition did feature one notable difference compared to the first iteration. It did not include the place and date on the final line: “Salem, March 13, 1769.” What explains the alteration?

Most likely the compositor exercised discretion in dropping the final line of the advertisement, choosing to do so in order to make it fit in the final column on the last page of the March 21 issue. Six notices comprised that column. In addition to Vans’s advertisement, Benjamin Coats and Susanna Renken each ran advertisements for a “fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds,” Samuel Hall promoted a pamphlet for sale at the printing office, Benjamin Marston of Marblehead offered the Misery Islands for sale, and Peter Frye and Nathan Goodale published an estate notice following the death of Ebenezer Bowditch. All six advertisements ran in the March 14 issue. With the exception of Vans’s advertisement, all of them appeared in the March 21 edition exactly as they had the previous week.

Had the compositor not removed the final line from Vans’s notice, all six would not have fit in a single column. Most likely the compositor had looked for a convenient means of reducing the length of one of the advertisements. Two of them, Vans’s advertisement and the estate notice, included final lines listing place and date, lines easily removed without making it necessary to otherwise reset any type. The estate notice, however, needed the date because it specified that Frye and Goodale would continue to settle accounts at a local tavern “on the last Friday of this and of the five Months next ensuing.” Since such advertisements sometimes ran for weeks or months, the date at the end was imperative. Vans’s notice, on the other hand, did not require the date, facilitating the removal of that line. The compositor most likely made that decision without consulting the advertiser.

While these particulars may seem insignificant, they help to demonstrate the division of authority exercised by colonists involved in the production of newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century. Advertisers usually generated copy, but compositors determined graphic design elements. In this case, the compositor made a slight alteration to the copy in the service of the format of the entire page on which the advertisement appeared.

March 14


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

Essex Gazette (March 14, 1769).

“CHOICE green Coffee … also blue and white China Cups and Saucers.”

This advertisement features a series of goods sold by William Vans. His merchandise included green coffee, ground ginger, rum, indigo, and china cups and saucers, all imported from faraway places around the globe. I focused on two of these goods that were extremely popular among the colonists and played an important role in colonial life.

Coffee and tea were both introduced in Europe in the early seventeenth century and became increasingly popular in the colonies in the eighteenth century. When coffee and tea became common drinks, colonists desired something other than normal cups to drink them. According to Beth Carver Wees at the Metropolitan Museum, the colonists decided to buy ceramic and silver vessels. Vans sold imported “blue and white China Cups and Saucers” along with his coffee and tea. In addition, this created business for silversmiths and was viewed as a sign as someone’s wealth if they owned a lot of accessories for drinking coffee and tea. Some of these included covered sugar bowls, cream pots, teakettles, and hot-water urns. People often bought them for the intricate design or for the shiny complexion. The establishment of coffee shops helped colonists pass along information and news, making it a lot easier to gather support when the colonies rebelled against Britain.



William Vans was not the only purveyor of “blue and white China Cups and Saucers” to advertise in the March 14, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. Among the vast inventory of goods in stock at his shop, Francis Grant listed “an Assortment of China, Glass, Stone and Delph Ware.” Susanna Renken concluded her advertisement for a “fresh Assortment of Garden Seeds” that named dozens of varieties with a brief note about “a Box of China Ware to sell” at her shop in Boston. Of the nine paid notices that appeared in that issue, one concerned real estate, one outlined legal proceedings to settle an estate, and the remaining seven promoted goods to consumers or commodities to traders. A substantial proportion of advertisers named china among their wares. Colonial retailers both served a market that demanded “China Ware” and sought to incite greater demand for such products.

As Luke suggests in his analysis of Vans’s advertisement, this was possible because both retailers and consumers recognized how certain goods complemented others. Rather than specializing solely in spices and beverages, Vans also sold china cups and saucers for drinking his “CHOICE green Coffee” and “Most excellent Bohea Tea.” Grant hawked “Loaf and Brown Sugar” along with his “Assortment of China.” Consumers did not purchase just tea or just china or just sugar. Instead, they acquired these items simultaneously. Many likely also purchased other accessories to incorporate into their coffee and tea drinking rituals from among the “all Sorts of European Goods” peddled by Vans and the “general Assortment of English and West-India GOODS” advertised by Grant. In other advertisements, Renken offered all sorts of textiles, some of which could have been used to make cloths to adorn the tables where customers drank tea or coffee sweetened with sugar and served in china. The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century occurred not only because of a proliferation in the availability of goods but also because the acquisition of one item often required obtaining other items in order to enhance the experience of consuming any of them. Advertisements in early American newspapers provide a map of the consumption habits of many colonial readers.