What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Being much importuned by sundry young men of the carpenter’s business …”
Thomas Nevell was “one of colonial Philadelphia’s most prominent master builders, according to curator Erin Kuykendall Thomas of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. Nevell “designed and constructed significant public and private buildings, from the classically inspired Georgian mansion Mount Pleasant to the utilitarian cabinetmaking shop of Benjamin Randolph” (an artisan famous among early American advertising enthusiasts for his ornate trade card). Yet in the eyes of architectural historians, Nevell deserves acclaim for another accomplishment. His “unique contribution to his profession,” in the words of Carl G. Karsh, “was the city’s – and probably the nation’s – first architecture school.”
Karsh locates the origins of Nevell’s instruction in “a lengthy advertisement which doubles as syllabus for Nevell’s new venture,” published in the October 31, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He originally taught lessons in his, but the school was so successful that Nevell built a two-story classroom behind the house in 1772. By that time, Nevell had opened his academy for at least two seasons. An advertisement in the September 27, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette announced that he “sundry young men of the carpenter’s business” convinced him to offer lessons. Classes were scheduled to begin on October 1 and continue through the end of March. Just as he would do the following fall, he provided an overview of the material covered, including “the most useful problems in geometry,” “the most easy and ready method of describing brackets for plaistered cornices and coverings,” and “a new and concise method to form the diminution of columns, dividing and gauging the flutes and fillets of either columns or pilasters.” Pupils could expect that many of these lessons would require hands-on work rather than attending lectures. They “will be reduced to practice in miniature,” Nevell stated.
Nevell charged ten shillings as an initial entrance fee and then twenty shilling per month for as long as students continued to attend the school. He offered lessons “from 6 to 9 o’clock at night” three evenings each week. The following year, he extended the numbers of nights he offered instruction to four each week, but tuition remained the same.
Operating the school likely further enhanced Nevell’s reputation as a master builder. He claimed that he offered lessons “with some reluctance” after “being much importuned” by younger men who wanted to learn the trade and who recognized and respected his work. Although Nevell did not make appeals directly to prospective clients in his advertisement for his new school, he may have expected that notifying the public of this new enterprise would further enhance his standing as one of the most skilled artisans in Philadelphia.