Advertising Over the Years Show People Largely Stay the Same

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Advertisements offer insights into culture and can help researchers learn about the past — often more than they may have imagined.

With that in mind, I recently selected at random three 1790 editions (Oct. 25, Nov. 1, and Nov. 8) from The North Carolina Chronicle/Fayetteville Gazette. The paper, with a seemingly conflicting name, lasted only a short time (1790-91).

The first U.S. census was taken in 1790. Approximately 4 million people lived in the United States. Nearly one-fifth of the population was black Americans, and of them, 90 percent lived below the Mason-Dixon line. Half of all white Americans were 16 or younger. Most people lived in rural areas, and only 24 towns and cities had a population exceeding 2,500. Most of the nation’s 92 papers were printed in these two dozen towns.

Above the advertising section of the Chronicle/Gazette was this poem reminding me that early Americans shunned titles of nobility.


“Prince, Duke and Marquis, Count and Abbe/Are titles lately grown so shabby/

The people will no more respect ‘em/E’en nobleman themselves reject ‘em.

… Hail deep humility of spirit/That forms a common flock of merit/

Assigns the same exalted station/To him who saves or sinks a nation.”


People also used the paper to sell land and homes. A 500-acre plantation west of Lake Waccamaw was for sale, but if it remained unsold by December 1, the owner planned to rent it on a yearly basis. Another ad announced to Fayetteville readers a public auction near Wilmington.

The ad section contained job postings. A jeweler’s “Help Wanted” ad, for example, announced positions for two “smart, active lads … for work in the jewelry and watchmaking business.” The jeweler also notified readers he paid cash for old or cut silver.

John Johnston & Co. in Wilmington provided shoppers with what might resemble a modern-day Costco or Sam’s Club experience. The store stocked German steel, 8’x10’ window glasses, and refined iron and nails. Various European teas were available, and so were alcoholic beverages “by the hogshead” — a large barrel containing between 63 and 140 gallons. For home decorators, the store proudly listed a general inventory including “Manchester linen, and woolen drapery.” The store sold items at wholesale and retail prices. If a shopper was unable to pay in cash — a common problem in 1790s North Carolina — the store also accepted “country produce” as payment. This ad surely encouraged subscribers that the long travel would be worth it.

The paper’s printer also sold books. His catalog included mainly histories and political philosophies, such as Robertson’s History of Scotland and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. Ancient classics such as Homer’s Iliad were for sale, too. He accepted paper and hard money, but he discounted goods purchased with hard money.

S. Staiert’s announced his shop’s new location. Despite the move, he continued to operate his reputable “HAIR-DRESSING and Shaving” business and sold “Hair-Powder, Shaving Soap, and Tooth powder in boxes.”

Horse thievery was a problem. James Crow of Chatham County offered a five-pound reward for someone to secure his stolen sorrel (chestnut colored) horse. Richard West, also of Chatham, offered six pounds for the same service for his sorrel mare; a reward of 20 pounds was listed for a “strayed or stolen” horse from Fayetteville.

For those without stolen horses, William Cook, a half-mile outside Fayetteville, charged two shillings and six pence per day — a “moderate price” — to provide the “best care” on his 100-acre farm.

Specifics may change through time, but people in many ways remain the same. Read some old ads — it doesn’t matter if they’re from the 1790s or 1970s — and determine for yourself.