- A British Atlantic World of Advertising? Colonial American “For Sale” Notices in Comparative Context
Almost as soon as newspapers began appearing in Britain’s American colonies, advertising became an integral part of their weekly copy. Quickly, many editions also started to include special advertising supplements, containing only paid-for copy announcing goods for sale, lost animals, stolen goods, escaped slaves and servants, social events, and tradesmen’s services. While some early advertisements were so simple as to be almost amusing—Charles Town tin-smith Robert McDougall’s curt 1750 statement that “I’ll make a Sugar-box, it shall be made of Tin; That neither Water or Ant shall enter in” being one such memorable effort—historians have also uncovered a significant and growing level of commercial awareness in the colonial advertisement.1 Indeed, the emerging literature on American advertising in the pre-1783 era has acknowledged advertisers’ talent for creative copy and the original use of a wide variety of printed media to promote their services.2 Thus, it is through their recent explorations of eighteenth-century American advertising that scholars have moved beyond their earlier portrayals of the medium, which tended either to deplore the colonial advertisement as comprising primarily a tedious lists of goods or to overlook the purpose of the advertisement altogether in favor of mining notices for information to use in another context.3 Instead, a new narrative now privileges the importance of the colonial advertisement in its own right, leading us especially to an appreciation of how innovative colonial advertisers were, how enmeshed they were in a transatlantic English language of goods that promoted a “consumer society,” and even how the aftermath of the American Revolution prompted them quickly to reorient their copy towards the creation of American identity and iconography.4
Yet the study of the colonial American advertisement is still in its infancy. Indeed, it has barely managed to break free from its erstwhile roles of “poor cousin” to the British eighteenth-century advertisement or naïve precursor to its much more sophisticated nineteenth-century American successor. While we [End Page 110] are now in possession of a much greater appreciation of its central role in the creation of a British Atlantic consumer society, we still lack an understanding of some important aspects of the colonial commercial advertisement. For example, the forces shaping its character have not ranged commonly beyond the issue of its cultural work within the colonial consumer economy. This article takes a more quantitative approach to compare colonial newspaper advertising sections to their direct counterparts in the British provincial press. I argue such a comparison reveals that commercial notices in colonial newspapers showed clear differences from their British equivalent, and that exploring the reasons behind these contrasts can provide historians with a more nuanced understanding of the market for goods and services that emerged in Britain’s eighteenth-century Atlantic world.
Given that one of the central claims of this article is that colonial American advertisements had a number of unique characteristics, it is imperative to examine them, first of all, in comparison with their British contemporaries. Thus, this article seeks first to draw out the general similarities and differences between the commercial notices placed in British and American provincial newspapers, while the second part explores some of the reasons behind American particularities and their meanings for our understanding of the colonial commercial culture, more generally. Finally, I address the significance of the conclusions for the widespread agreement among historians that there was a British Atlantic “empire of goods” in the eighteenth century.5
As is now well known by scholars working on English-language print, the headline news of the eighteenth century was the rise of newspaper copy, first in London and then, by the 1720s and 1730s, throughout the British provinces and the American colonies. Following the decision by the government in 1694 not to renew the 1643 licensing act, weekly news sheets flourished in London and then spread beyond the metropole, eventually to form a provincial print culture. In many ways, the arrival of the newspaper in the British provinces happened simultaneously with its appearance on American shores. Indeed, Charles Clark has noted...