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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Early and aggressive advertising

by Tom Dillard | December 5, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.


It is challenging to do research in 19th-century Arkansas newspapers. Not only can they be difficult to read due to the wear and tear of time, but one is constantly tempted to waste considerable hours browsing through the advertisements.

Getting lost in those ads is a great way to spend an hour or two, but plays havoc with deadlines. It can, however, also yield some surprising insights into the lives of earlier Arkansans.

Arkansas started out as a thinly populated county in Missouri Territory in 1819, followed within months with the establishment of a newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette. Though Arkansas initially had a tiny population and Arkansas Post, its colonial-era territorial capital, never amounted to more than a village, the Gazette found no shortage of advertisers.

The first issue of the Gazette, published Nov. 20, 1819, contained a number of advertisements and paid notices, the largest being for new commission merchants Lewis & Thomas. That advertisement consisted of a detailed list of dozens of items ranging from dry goods to groceries, hardware, and of course liquors. None of the advertisements include prices.

I was interested in the relatively small offering of groceries. Included were coffee and sugar, two highly valued staples on the frontier. The sugar was available in both granular and loaf forms; the latter was conical, and small pliers called nips were used to break off pieces. Numerous mountains in Arkansas and around the world are named Sugar Loaf, testimony to the common use of the sweet sugar cone.

While Lewis & Thomas did offer rice, no mention was made of flour or cornmeal. A relatively large selection of spices was listed including pepper, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. Numerous "Queensware" dishes and ceramic items must have brought joy to many of the women struggling to make a home in a raw new country. Likewise, the store offered fabrics and textiles, including German and Irish linens.

No doubt the store's large hardware department was a busy one since it offered almost everything but glass for building a log house: axes, nails, augers, hinges, locks, and bolts. And to help one relax after a long day chopping logs, Lewis & Thomas advertised the availability of 80 barrels of "good whiskey," one barrel of "4th proof whiskey," and one barrel of peach brandy. Tobacco products included loose tobacco and "segars."

The availability of such a large inventory spoke to the arrival eight months earlier on March 31, 1820, of the first steamboat to dock at Arkansas Post. This was 13 years after Robert Fulton's Clermont launched the commercial steamboat era in 1807. The arrival of the steamboat further opened Arkansas to national and international markets.

It is interesting to compare the Lewis & Thomas advertisement of 1819 with one published in 1827 by Montgomery & Cotten of Arkansas Post. One difference was the increased offerings of liquors and wines. In addition to "first rate Old Ohio Whiskey," thirsty residents could buy cognac and French brandy as well as "Holland Gin." Wines included "a long-corked" claret.

Another difference is the presence of seafood in the Montgomery & Cotten advertisement. These were preserved--probably pickled--but were not canned since they were offered in kegs and barrels. A barrel of "no. 1 Mackerel" was available, along with 12 kegs of salmon and three kegs of oysters.

After considerable reading of early Arkansas eating habits, I am convinced that oysters had a special appeal in antebellum Arkansas. In 1824, Gazette founder William E. Woodruff, who probably ate oysters while growing up on Long Island, reprinted a plea from the Utica, N.Y., newspaper for shipping more oysters to "the western country" where "no article from the sea board meets with a more ready sale ... than oysters and clams."

An advertisement from the Gazette in July 1832 documented that pickled oysters were even available in 1832 at Fort Gibson, well up the Arkansas River beyond Fort Smith.

That same issue of the Gazette included an advertisement for a new gunsmith business in Little Rock. Christian Brumback, a German immigrant, announced that his "five excellent workmen ... will carry on the gun smith, blacksmith, and wagon-making business, in all their various branches."

Brumback would later earn a footnote in Arkansas militia history when as a regimental commander he wore an ostentatious uniform involving much gold lace and topped off with a cocked hat replete with ostrich plumes.

Many merchants accepted farm or country produce in lieu of cash payment, which was immensely helpful in frontier Arkansas. Byrd & Dugan, Little Rock commission merchants, could be paid with cash, beaver, otter, and bear skins, bear's oil, tallow, and beeswax. Transactions of this nature continued well into 20th-century Arkansas.

Among the most common ads in early Arkansas newspapers were for legal services. On July 23, 1828, Chester Ashley advertised that he "will hereafter regularly attend the courts in the counties on the Mississippi River." Ashley would become a U.S. senator and among the richest people in the area.

The Washington Telegraph carried ads for many lawyers throughout southwest Arkansas, including a January 1862 notice that Thomas G.T. Steel was practicing law in Paraclifta, Sevier County. Members of the Steel family are still in the legal profession.

Given the number of advertisements offering enslaved human beings for sale to the highest bidder, reading antebellum Arkansas newspapers can be painful. The July 23, 1828 issue of the Gazette includes side-by-side ads for rewards, one for $50 for a stolen horse, the other for $10 for the capture of a runaway slave named Jess.

An 1857 estate sale advertisement in the Washington Telegraph in southwestern Arkansas, the only newspaper in the state to continue publication throughout the Civil War, offered a Lafayette county plantation replete with eight yokes of oxen, 25 cows, 3,000 bushels of corn, 25 mules and horses, and "25 or 30 likely negroes."

Nothing so symbolizes the cruelty of slavery as the sale of enslaved people. We do not know the fate of these people, who were described as "mostly all young, raised on Red river, thoroughly acclimated, and consisting of families--men, women and children." While cash was preferred, the seller would be willing to extend payment for 12 months "with 10 per cent interest from date."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living and reading old newspapers in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.


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