What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“The Fire-Works will be disposed in the following Order.”
Colonists in New York, especially those who read the New-York Journal, were aware that “two Italian Brothers” who created fireworks shows visited the city and resided among them in the spring of 1768. To draw audiences for their shows, the brothers adopted marketing strategies similar to those deployed by other itinerant entertainers in eighteenth-century America. They initially introduced themselves to a community that considered them strangers, presenting their credentials before their first public exhibition. In advertisements published in May they described themselves as “two Italian Brothers from Turin, (Engineers to the King of Sardinia).” They also informed New Yorkers that they had previously presented “very surprising Specimens of their Abilities before the Royal Family in Spain and with great Applause before his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, and all the Nobility at Bath.” They proclaimed that colonists in New York could witness the same fireworks demonstrations that had entertained some of the most powerful and important personages in Europe.
Subsequent advertisements dispensed with such puffery in favor of local testimonials to their skills as both engineers and entertainers. They no longer needed to assert that they had performed for nobility on the other side of the Atlantic because reports of their first shows at Ranelagh Gardens in New York spread by word of mouth. Such testimonials likely evoked less skepticism since a general buzz among those who had seen the fireworks or knew someone who had seen the fireworks or even knew someone who knew someone who had attended the performance provided more certain verification about the quality and entertainment value of the show than a list of dignitaries on the other side of the ocean. Indeed, the “two Italian Brothers” trumpeted that they had “given such Specimens of their Abilities (to the general Satisfaction of the Spectators) at the Fire-Works), which they have formerly exhibited” at Ranelagh Gardens that “some of the principal Gentlemen of this City” had encouraged them to put on another show.
In that regard they also followed a script established by other itinerant entertainers in their advertisements: begin by announcing a single performance or limited time engagement but upon establishing a reputation in the local marketplace extend the stay and promise bigger and bolder spectacles to assure prospective viewers that they too could witness the same entertainments that had captured the attention of so many of their friends and neighbors. For the fireworks engineers, this meant presenting a show “more curious than either of the former,” this one composed of four parts (each described in detail) rather than the three parts that comprised their first exhibition at Ranelagh Gardens. Like other performers who traveled from city to city in the colonies, the “two Italian Brothers” attempted to manage expectations for their shows in the press, inserting advertisements that first introduced them to the public and, later, others that offered one more chance to participate (and avoid being excluded from) an event that loomed large in local popular culture.