What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A LARGE ASSORTMENT of Bath, Mecklin, Brussels and Buckinghamshire laces.”
Mary Symonds, a milliner, placed a short advertisement in the April 28, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette to announce that she now stocked “A VERY large and neat Assortment of MERCHANDIZE” imported from London via the Mary and Elizabeth. The ship had just arrived in port, so Symonds had not yet had time to compose a complete list of her new inventory, but she promised more information about the “Particulars” in the next issue of the Gazette.
The following week Symonds’s lengthy advertisement did indeed appear, occupying a prominent place on the front page, making it difficult for readers to miss. Yet the Pennsylvania Gazette and other newspapers were not the only places where Symonds published this impressive assortment of millinery wares and other goods. Symonds was one of very few women who distributed trade cards in eighteenth-century America. With an elegant cartouche containing her name and location and a decorative border enclosing her list of merchandise, Symonds’s engraved trade card was unparalleled among any extant examples belonging to American women.
Careful comparison of her trade card and her advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette reveals that the former almost exactly paralleled the latter. All of the items appear in the same order, though sometimes the spelling and capitalization varied or descriptions changed slightly (such as “quantity of trimmings for ladies clothes” becoming “assortment of trimmings for ladies clothes”). Occasionally the trade card deployed the word “ditto” or its abbreviation, “Do,” rather than repeating words that appeared in the previous clause. A small number of items listed in the newspaper advertisement disappeared from the trade card, but no new items were listed. Symonds eliminated “Scotch handkerchiefs” (but listed many other varieties), “gentlemens silk and thread gloves” (but, again, listed other options), and “basket” buttons. The removal of basket buttons caused a slight revision in Symonds’s description of the variety of buttons she stocked: “a very large quantity of the best death-head, basket and gilt buttons” became “a large Quantity of the best Death-head and Gilt Buttons.” The trade cared even included the nota bene that appeared as its own line at the conclusion of the advertisement: “N.B. Fans neatly mounted.” For the most part, Symonds’s trade card replicated her newspaper advertisement.
This prompts reconsideration of when Symonds commissioned and began distributing her trade card to current and prospective customers. Previously it has been dated to circa 1770 because the only known copy, part of the Cadwalader Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has a receipted bill on the reverse. That bill lists five occasions in October and November 1770 that “Mrs. Cadwalader” made a series of purchases from Symonds, who received payment in full on November 20, 1770. The similarities between the trade card and the newspaper advertisement, however, suggest that Symonds first distributed the trade card more than two years earlier.
That seems particularly appropriate since, regardless of the other content of her newspaper advertisements, Symonds regularly stressed that she was “now removed from her late shop, the corner of Market and Second-streets, to her new shop in Chestnut-street, the sixth door from Second-street.” This corresponds to the address listed on her trade card: “the South Side of Chesnut Street between Front and Second Streets, the Sixth Door from Second street.” Having recently moved to a new location, Symonds may have considered it particularly imperative to enhance her marketing efforts to direct existing and prospective clients to her new shop. The occasion of her move may have justified branching out to an additional form of advertising media. This also suggests that Symonds’s use of her trade card may have changed over time. She may have distributed beyond her shop when it was new and the contents accurately represented her current inventory, but over time she may have reserved the outdated remaining copies for use as receipted bills within her shop, presenting her best customers with a memento of their shopping experience.