GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A fine assortment of neat pinchbeck shoe-buckles.”
As I read this advertisement, I was overwhelmed by the variety of goods imported in the Thames by Captain Watt and offered for sale by “Baker & Bridgham In Union Street.” The assortment of goods ranged from fabrics such as satins and flannels to accessories such as buckles and buttons.
I was intrigued by the description of the shoe buckles made of pinchbeck. Pinchbeck, a form of brass, was commonly used to design accessories during the colonial era. An alloy of copper and zinc, pinchbeck resembled gold in its appearance. At first, many colonists might have thought that pinchbeck was real gold because of its bright and polished image. However, pinchbeck was a “counterfeit” of gold regularly used to craft various jewelry and other adornments, including rings, necklaces, earrings, brooches and shoe buckles.
Colonial smiths and jewelers designed items made of pinchbeck for customers, who asked for their jewelry and accessories to be specific shapes, include precious stones, or have their name engraved. However, there were other colonists who preferred to take advantage of the already stocked and readymade items that were available from shopkeepers like Baker and Bridgham.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The November 10, 1766, issue of the Boston Evening-Post was accompanied by an advertising supplement. Approximately half of the regular issue already consisted of advertising, but T. and J. Fleet sold more advertisements than the issue could contain. As was often the case with colonial newspapers, this issue and its supplement functioned as a delivery mechanism for advertising more than as a means of delivering news items. Rather than a mixture of legal notices and other sorts of advertising that transmitted news and announcements, almost every advertisement that appeared in the supplement promoted consumer goods and services. A couple of dozen merchants and shopkeepers enticed readers in Boston to desire and purchase the merchandise they stocked.
This supplement demonstrates one of the disadvantages of working with digitized sources. The size of the page on which it was printed appears to be different than the broadsheet for the regular issue, but the database does not provide sufficient metadata (or any sort of measurements at all) to make that determination. Each page of the regular issue included three columns, but both pages of the supplement had four. When downloading the entire issue as a PDF, the supplement appears wider, but there’s no way to know if the relative proportions accurately represent the original sources without consulting those sources themselves. This hinders our ability to understand some of the ways that colonists might have interacted with the advertising supplement as a material text.
The content of the advertisements does not tell the entire story. Was the supplement indeed printed on a larger sheet? If so, why? Would it have been simply to squeeze in all the remaining advertisements? Or was that a strategy the Fleets employed to call special attention to the advertisements they published, perhaps making their newspaper more attractive to other advertisers (and, in turn, generating more revenues)? Is there evidence that the supplement was folded in order to fit inside the original issue and delivered at the same time? The digitized images of the November 10 issue and its supplement do not indicate the answers to these questions. Digital surrogates simultaneously allow for greater access to historical sources and conceal some of the important attributes of the originals.