April 9

GUEST CURATOR:  Maia Campbell

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Apr 9 - 4:7:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (April 7, 1766).

“WILLIAM ADAMS, TUTOR to the Academy at COLDINGHAM, INFORMS the Gentlemen of the City, who have their sons there, that they are well.”

In 1766, an age of a growing importance on education, especially for men, was beginning to dawn in the American colonies. In the past throughout the Western world, tutoring services were offered mainly to nobility. During colonial times, this was also mostly the case, though different colonies had different experiences. In general, children of the “lower sorts” could not afford to get an education, and they also lacked opportunity (especially outside the New England colonies).

This tutor, William Adams, did not specify the social class of the boys he desired to tutor. The fact that this advertisement was published in a newspaper indicates progress in the right direction. Yet though Adams’ advertisement moves in the direction of educational opportunity for many, the academy he was advertising was a boarding school. Though the advertisement indicated that “any one having a mind to enter their sons” had a chance to speak with the tutor, the real opportunity remained for those with sufficient money for the boarding costs.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Maia has identified some of the recurrent themes that appeared in advertisements for educational opportunities in the decade prior to the Revolution. Instructors advertising their classes frequently placed notices in newspapers. Both the men and women who ran boarding schools and Latin academies and the tutors and instructors who offered special subjects, such as foreign languages, dancing, or fencing, emphasized that they conducted their lessons in an atmosphere of morality and politeness and promoted their services by suggesting that refined individuals possessed the skills that they offered to teach. In so doing, they presented potential students and their parents with a strategy for asserting their own social status by acquiring skills and pursuing activities associated with metropolitan elites.

These advertisements preserved an aura of hierarchy in educational pursuits by associating them with elite gentility, but they opened up learning opportunities to prospective students who did not necessarily come from elite backgrounds. They sold – or attempted to sell – gentility to a broad reading public. Thus, they highlighted a tension between popularizing goods and services in order to sell them and the continued association of codes of gentility with elite social standing.

As Maia noted, we can see this tension in today’s advertisement. Adams posted this notice for two purposes. First, he let the “Gentlemen of the City, who have their Sons there” at the academy know that his charges were doing well and would be visiting the New York soon. In addition, he used this notice to recruit additional students. He addressed “Any one having a mind to enter their Sons,” suggesting that this was an opportunity open to all readers. In an era of significant social mobility, some middling readers may have seized such an opportunity to further enhance their status and their family’s prospects for the future. The tutor, for his part, appeared content to enroll middling as well as elite youths.

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