What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He also makes Wyer Cages for Parots, Rivets China, and hangs Bells in Gentlemen’s Houses.”
James Byers, a “Brass-Founder, in Smith-street,” advertised that he “MAKES all Sorts of BRASS WORK” and then proceeded to list a vast array of examples, from candlesticks to chambers for pumps to “Brands for marking Casks” (particularly of interest as a means of marking and marketing products). He concluded his advertisement by listing three other services he provided: “He also makes Wyer Cages for Parots, Rivets China, and hangs Bells in Gentlemen’s Houses.”
It was that short list that convinced me to choose Byers’ advertisement to feature today, especially the “Wyer Cages for Parots.” I loved imagining colonial New Yorkers with parrots as exotic pets. I was also intrigued that most of Byers’ interaction with customers took place in his shop or workshop, but on occasion he visited clients’ homes to hang bells. Apparently he was responsible not only for making or selling bells but also for installing systems that allowed visitors to alert residents they were at the front door or means for summoning servants.
I’ll confess, however, that I was initially confused by his claim that he “Rivets China,” but I ended up learning the most from that portion of the advertisement. I have seen museum pieces with rivets, but I chose to overlook them, preferring instead to imagine porcelain in its pristine condition. In researching today’s entry, however, I have realized that this attitude caused me to overlook important aspects of the history of objects and their use by consumers.
I started by seeking a basic explanation of “Rivets China,” which led me to this: “Riveted chinaware is any china (pottery, porcelain and bone chine) that has been cracked and repaired by means of a staple repair.” This is the kind of repair undertaken before epoxies were available.
From there I found an article on “Old Repairs of China and Glass” by Isabelle Garachon that appeared in the Rijks Museum Bulletin. Garachon reported that riveting was a “mechanical joining technique … used very widely to repair china and porcelain in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is actually still in use in China today.” Riveting throughout the ages has been so commonly practiced, Garachon continued, that a 1963 book on China Mending and Restortation “devoted no fewer than 170 pages to describing all the variations of the riveting method, which had meanwhile developed into a complex art.” Garachon’s article includes several color photos of china repaired by rivets as well as diagrams detailing this method of repairing broken and cracked pieces.
Finally, Andrew Baseman’s blog, “Past Imperfect: The Art of Inventive Repair,” features photos of a variety of items repaired with staples or rivets in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Baseman argues for finding the beauty in the repairs and recognizing how treasured these items must have been for their owners to seek to preserve them after suffering damage.
Byers’ customers likely had different reasons for bringing their broken china to his shop. Some may have wanted to maintain the functionality of housewares they used regularly. Others may have wanted to preserve the aesthetic qualities of pieces on display in their homes. Some may have had sentimental attachments to certain pieces and felt heartbroken when they were damaged. Byers’ advertisement challenges us to think about how consumers used the goods they purchased and the emotional attachments they developed.