March 4

GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Supplement to the New-York Journal (March 4, 1769).

“PAINT STORE … Yellow oaker … Prussian blue.”

This advertisement for a paint store can gives a look into status in colonial America by listing different color paints. In eighteenth-century America, some paint colors represented wealth and high social standing, but others did not. Some pigments were easier to produce so were therefore cheaper. For example, iron oxide pigment created a dark red color and was readily available and primarily used by people of a lower status. Other paint colors were hard to achieve, like “Prussian blue” and “Yellow oaker” (ochre), both in this advertisement.

When the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was working on restoring their historic buildings, historians had to figure out what the original colors of some of the historic buildings were to return them to how they appeared in the eighteenth century. However, not all the buildings survived and some that did did not have paint residues left on them. Historians had to make educated guesses as to what the original colors were. To figure this out, they looked to the houses’ values in the eighteenth century. One house was valued at 1100 pounds in 1790, a very large amount. “This indicated a higher-status structure,” according to Paul Aron, causing the team to choose yellow ochre, an expensive and sought-after color of the gentry. Another house, only valued at 70 pounds, was painted brown, a cheaper pigment that was readily available for the lower sorts. The paint types being sold in the advertisement would be primarily only available to the middling and better sorts. Just by the color, a house and therefore a family could display their wealth and social standing. Paint colors help to tell the story about how colonists made distinctions between social classes.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

March 4 fell on a Saturday in 1769. The New-York Journal was not usually published on Saturdays, but John Holt, the printer, made an exception when he distributed a two-page supplement just two days after the newspaper’s usual publication date. Supplements usually appeared on the same day as regular issues, especially when printers already had the news in hand. Breaking news that could not wait until the next issue sometimes merited speedy publication in a midweek supplement or extraordinary issue, such as news of the repeal of the Stamp Act in the spring of 1766.

Yet this supplement did not deliver breaking news, suggesting that Holt just did not have enough time to print the supplement for distribution on Thursday. He offered a brief description of its contents at the top of the first column on the first page: “[Further Advices by Capt. Berrian, left out, on Thursday last for want of Room.]” Those “Advices” from Berlin and London, a series of news items, filled the entire first page and most of the second. To complete the supplementary issue, Holt inserted brief updates from Charleston and Boston, a little bit of local news from New York, and four advertisements. L. Kilburn’s notice concerning his “PAINT STORE, at the White-Hall” was one of those advertisements.

That advertisement, or any other advertisement from the New-York Journal, usually would not have been an option for Olivia to analyze. As I explained in a recent entry about the Adverts 250 Project’s methodology and the distribution of newspaper publication throughout the week in 1769, the Providence Gazette was the only colonial newspaper published on Saturdays in 1769 (which correspond to dates that fall on Mondays in 1769). During most other weeks, the methodology would have prescribed that Olivia choose from among the advertisements in the Providence Gazette, a newspaper overrepresented in the project because it was the only one published on Saturdays.

In selecting an advertisement from the Supplement to the New-York Journal, Olivia continues a practice that I had previously instituted: choosing advertisements from midweek supplements whenever possible as a means of addressing the overrepresentation of the Essex Gazette (published on Tuesdays in 1769), the Georgia Gazette (Wednesdays) and the Providence Gazette (Saturdays).

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