In Which Advertising Ephemera Became Paratexts for Material Culture

A couple of months ago I examined binder’s labels and trade cards, arguing that when they were affixed to books they became paratexts that transformed goods that were purchsed for use by consumers into advertisements that continued to promote further consumption long after the initial purchase took place. Such instances represented a particular case of a wider practice in eighteenth-century America. An assortment of artisans, retailers, and merchants attached labels to a variety of goods they made or sold. Sometimes these labels had been created expressly for that purpose. Other times they were trade cards or broadsides adapted for new use. On occasion they supplemented newspaper advertisements, even reiterating the text that appeared in the public prints.

When printers, booksellers, and bookbinders inserted their labels in the books they printed, sold, or bound, those labels rightly became paratexts, additional printed materials that framed the main text and potentially altered the reception of the text by readers. How should such labels be described when attached to other goods – items that were not printed, such as furniture or containers? Is it possible to have a paratext without a text? Or should we conceive of texts in different ways? Historians “read,” analyze, and interpret a variety of primary sources, from printed and manuscript texts to visual images to material culture artifacts and architecture. In one way or another, don’t all of these qualify as texts, even if they did not come off a printing press or flow from a pen?

Let’s take a closer look at some examples. In the eighteenth century, Americans who made and sold a variety of goods devised ways to transform their products into advertisements that would associate their name with their goods long after their wares left the shop. Many items, especially those purchased from artisans, came with labels or other marks denoting their source. Pewterers and silversmiths stamped their creations with unique marks. Cabinetmakers and other woodworkers signed, stamped, impressed, or branded the furniture they created, and others affixed labels to the bottoms of drawers, the backs of mirrors, and underneath chair seats. For example, Simon Edgell, a pewterer active in Philadelphia between 1713 and 1742, stamped many of his works with his name and city and the outline of a bird.[1] During the final decade of the century, Benjamin, Jr., and Joseph Harbeson imprinted their pewter goods with two concentric circles with the words “HARBESON PHILADA:” situated between them.[2] At the end of the 1790s, Parks Boyd marked his work with his name and city and an eagle, apparently attempting to associate himself and his products with patriotism.[3] In the 1770s, Burrows Dowdney, a clockmaker, engraved his name and city in a banner on the clock dials he produced, directly below the axis on which the hands spun, making it difficult to glance at the clock without being reminded of who had constructed it. Other clockmakers also engraved at least their names and their city on the faces of their clocks.[4]

Early American cabinetmakers and other artisans also advertised their work by marking or branding it. Although cabinetmakers, like other artisans, did so partly out of a sense of pride, they also wanted to make sure that potential customers would know where to buy their goods. Their paper labels often closely resembled newspaper advertisements and handbills: not content with a simple identifying mark, they promoted their products by attaching full-fledged advertisements to them. Jonathan Gostelowe’s label from circa 1783 was typical.[5] It advertised his cabinets and chairs, notified his customers of his location, and featured an ornate border. At least seventy of Philadelphia’s cabinetmakers marked their furniture in the eighteenth century.[6] Sometimes they stamped their furniture or even simply signed their name with chalk. Many affixed paper labels of varying degrees of complexity. Of the seventy known Philadelphia cabinetmakers who marked their furniture, two used handwritten labels and twenty-six used printed labels of varying degrees of ornateness. Even a handwritten label could do more than simply identify an artisan, as Henry Rigby’s partial label suggests. A federal-style walnut card table most likely constructed between 1780 and 1790 bears a partial handwritten label: “Henry Rigby Cabinetmaker on Front Street one door above the …” It is suggestive that Rigby at least wanted to list his address so anybody who saw or used the card table and found it pleasing could visit his workshop to order more furniture.[7] Similarly, sometime around 1790 saddler Jesse Sharples adapted his broadside to serve as a label by pasting it inside the lid of trunks he made and sold. He positioned the label such that anybody opening one of his trunks would be sure to see the advertisement.[8]

It was not necessary for an advertiser to have made an item in order to place a label on it. In addition to the skilled artisans who marked their teapots and highboy chests, enterprising retailers also had labels printed and attached them to the goods they sold. For instance, the silversmith Joseph Richardson imported boxes of English weights and scales in the 1750s, affixing his own label to the inside lid of the box where it would be protected from damage yet easily viewed every time the purchaser and his associates opened the box to use the scales. His label also drew merchants’ attention by including a list of the exchange rates for a dozen currencies that merchants and others mightencounter.[9] (Richardson complemented these labels with a short advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in September 1770: “To be SOLD by JOSEPH RICHARDSON, Goldsmith, A Parcel of Money Scales & Weights.” Martha Gandy Fales, a Richardson biographer, reports that the silversmith began placing similar advertisements a quarter century earlier.) In addition, John Elliott, Jr., ran a shop where, according to the labels on them, he sold “by Wholesale and Retail, Looking Glasses In neat Mahogany Frames of American Manufacture,” and also a wider selection of goods and services, including “Painters’ Colours,” varnishes, and even “a general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines.” [10] His label even stated that “Old Glass” could be “new quicksilvered and framed as usual” in his shop.

Just like trade cards, billheads, and other stand-alone advertisements circulating in early America, labels and maker’s marks continued to operate as advertising long after purchases took place. In fact, by attaching labels to frequently used items, advertisers likely increased the chances that they would be seen regularly. Consumers purchased more than goods that caught their interest. Those goods often doubled as advertisements that artisans, retailers, and merchants managed to insert into the daily lives of their customers, sometimes into their most private spaces away from the public commerce of the marketplace.  Advertisements were not confined to the pages of newspapers.  Instead, early Americans encountered a rich visual landscape of advertising all around them.


[1] Carl Jacobs, Guide to American Pewter (New York: McBride Company, 1957), 88.

[2] Jacobs, American Pewter, 106.

[3] C. Jordan Thorn, The Handbook of American Silver and Pewter Marks (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1949), 243.

[4] Burrows Dowdney, clock dial, (Philadelphia: ca. 1770), plate 43 in Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Henry N. Abrams for Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992).

[5] This label can be dated between 1783 and 1789 since Gostelowe worked at the Church Alley address during that period. Cliveden, NT75.1.1, Gostelowe Chest. See also William C. Ketchum with the Museum of American Folk Art, American Cabinetmakers: Marked American Furniture, 1640-1940 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995); and Edward Stratton Holloway, American Furniture and Decoration: Colonial and Federal (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1928), plate 42.

[6] I compiled a list of Philadelphia cabinetmakers active during the eighteenth century from Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[7] Henry Rigby, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library; and Ketchum, American Cabinetmakers.

[8] For the Sharples broadside, see Jesse Sharples, Jesse Sharples, Takes this Method of Informing trhe Public in General, and His Friends in Particular, that He Continues to Carry On the Saddling Business, as Usual, in All Its Various Branches, at his Saddle Manufactory, in the North-West Corner of Chesnut and Third-Streets, Four Doors from the Bank, and Opposite the Cross-Keys (Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1790). For the Sharples broadside pasted in a trunk, see Jesse Sharples, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.

[9] Martha Gandy Fales, Joseph Richardson and Family: Philadelphia Silversmiths (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1974), fig. 31.

[10] John Elliott, Jr., Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Library.

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