In Which Addresses in Adverts Reveal Changing Conceptions of Urban Landscapes in Early America

I have devoted several years to studying advertising in early America. As the project has unfolded, I have discovered that some people are drawn to certain advertisements because the addresses they include seem quaint or charming compared to modern systems of dividing up space and denoting locations. I’m content that old-fashioned addresses, those that lack a street number but instead rely on landmarks or familiarity with the surrounding area, encourage others to learn more about what the other elements of advertisements reveal about early American life and culture. However, I also try to make the case that the addresses themselves consist of more than just obligatory or introductory material to commercial notices. The addresses, in whatever form they happened to take, also reveal quite a bit about the world inhabited by eighteenth-century Americans.

Whenever possible, I have noted the location or directions provided in eighteenth-century advertisements (including “At the Sign of the Black Boy” in yesterday’s advertisement from tobacconist Augustus Deley), exploring what they tell us about early American life and culture. Some advertisements featured earlier this week also suggested the connections early Americans made among politics, commerce, and their conceptions of the spaces and places around them, including Barnabas Clarke’s shop “Near Liberty-Bridge” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Adam Collson selling wool “Under the TREE of LIBERTY” in Boston. In both instances, the advertisements referenced recent protests against the Stamp Act.

In many cases the addresses included in advertisements help to demonstrate change over time, how much our understanding of commerce and the urban landscape has changed in last quarter of a millennium. In other instances, however, the locations – especially shop signs – testify to continuity as much as change. Consumers may not look for the “Golden Key” or the “Sign of Admiral Vernon” any longer, but they do easily recognize a sign with a stylized red target or a pair of golden arches.

For the most part, modern businesses identify their location with a standardized address, even if their advertising offers additional information and directions to help potential customers find them. (Some advertising explicitly notes which standardized street address should be entered in a GPS device in order for customers to successfully navigate to their place of business.) Yet numbered street addresses do not appear in advertisements from 1766. When did this become a common practice? Once again, we have to look to the eighteenth century, though in this case the last decades of that century, to witness this innovation. Advertisements, along with other sources from the period, help us to understand how consumers reimagined urban spaces.

Under the pressure of increasing population growth, economic development, and urban expansion, residents of Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other urban ports devised new ways of positioning themselves within the urban landscape, creating a new spatial geography that helped orient residents in these more complex commercial cities. As David M. Henkin stresses in his examination of antebellum New York, “urban texts,” including advertisements, street signs, and building numbers, became “indispensable guides” that helped residents and visitors maneuver through the city and its increasing commercial abundance. They were also “apt symbols for a new kind of public life,” marking “the streets as belonging to an inclusive and undifferentiated public of potential readers.”[1]

The prosaic directions listed in advertisements both registered and promoted these changes in mapping the cityscape. Let’s use Philadelphia as an example. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the city was small and easy to navigate. Colonists in 1735, for example, would have been able to purchase pickled sturgeon by following directions in a newspaper advertisement that was no more specific than “Caleb Elfreth in Third-Street.” Elfreth’s advertisement was typical of others that also appeared in the June 19, 1735, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Others directed potential customers to “Mrs. Mankin” or “Miles Strickland … in Market-Street.” Some also included landmarks, including an advertisement for soap available at the “New Printing Office” and Theophilus Grew’s school “Over-against the Post-Office in Second-Street.” One advertiser made reference to a shop sign, “the Crooked Billet in Front-Street.” The city was compact enough and its population small enough that potential customers could find commercial places and people with minimal and unstandardized directions, using qualitative visual markers.

Time ran out on these older ways of marking the urban landscape during the second half of the century. Philadelphians were still likely to know the retailers who lived and worked in their neighborhoods and sometimes the locations of businesses elsewhere, especially when they had operated in the same spot for a number of years. But potential customers could no longer be counted on to know the whereabouts of most businesses, both because there were many more new commercial places and because a higher proportion of the city’s residents were newcomers. Accordingly, directions in advertisements became more specific and uniform. By the 1780s and 1790s, advertisers began to list locations that included “on the corner of Market and Third Streets,” “Front, between Arch and Race Streets,” and “Chesnut, the third door above Front street.” These were the locations or directions provided by W. Coulthard, Rundle and Murgatroyd, and Robert Smock, respectively, all in the July 5, 1790, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet. By this time other advertisers used numbered street addresses, both in newspapers and on other advertising media. For instance, James and Henry Reynolds listed their address as “56 Market Street” on their furniture label.[2] Apothecary Townsend Speakman’s billhead included “4 Second Street” as his address.[3]

Although some advertisers continued to rely on older ways of signaling location, including references to landmarks and the like, these began to look decidedly old-fashioned by the 1780s and, especially, the 1790s in the wake of city directories that listed a numbered street address for all residences and businesses. Some advertisers did incorporate traditional means of giving directions with newer forms, as did Thomas Dobson, a bookseller and stationer at “the New STONE HOUSE in Second street below Market street the seventh door above Chesnut Street” on his billhead in 1789.[4] Some advertisers also continued to refer to their shop signs, but this became less a way to signal location than one among several ways of branding their wares and their businesses. All in all, the newer directions that appeared in advertisements (in newspapers and other media) helped to disseminate a more standardized way of imagining the city spatially in the last decades of the century.

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[1] David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Word and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), x, 40.

[2] James and Henry Reynolds’ furniture label, Decorative Arts Photograph Collection, Winterthur Library.

[3] Townsend Speakman’s billhead, “Bot. of Townsend Speakman” (Philadelphia: 1789), Stauffer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[4] Thomas Dobson’s billhead, “Bot. of Thomas Dobson,” (Philadelphia: 1789), Levi Hollingsworth Receipted Bills, Society Small Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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