GUEST CURATOR: Sean Duda
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A HARPSICHORD, completely fitted, Maker’s Name (Mahoon, London:).”
This brief advertisement offered a harpsichord for sale. Harpsichords are often referred to as the “predecessor” of the piano. When Romance music started to come about at the beginning of the nineteenth century, everyone started to move over to pianos. This was due to the fact that pianos were more expressive and had more dynamics. This became even more true when Beethoven started working with piano builders in the early nineteenth century to make louder pianos before he went completely deaf. One of the main drawbacks to the harpsichord, that the piano did not have, was that no matter how softly or forcefully a musician pushed down on a key of a harpsichord the volume rang with the same amount of sound at all times.
During the eighteenth century many of the wealthy and elite had a harpsichord in their homes for entertainment. Ed Crews writes that “harpsichords were expensive in Great Britain and its North American colonies. During the 1700s … most harpsichords in America were made in Great Britain. Because of the cost, the instrument was a status symbol. The powerful, the refined, and the wealthy made sure they had one in their homes.” The harpsichord in this advertisement was made in London. Poorer colonists sometimes learn to sing in church or learned to play instruments that were less costly and of lower overall quality compared to the harpsichords owned by their wealthier counterparts.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Working with undergraduate guest curators sometimes offers a brief respite from examining the featured advertisements in favor of reflecting on pedagogy. All of the guest curators currently working on the Adverts 250 Project are currently enrolled in my upper-lever Revolutionary America, 1763-1815, course at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. As long as they abide by the methodology for the project they may examine whichever advertisements they wish. However, as project manager I reserve the right to review and approve all advertisements included in the project. I encourage guest curators to submit their proposed advertisements for approval before they conduct further research or begin writing about them.
This results in guest curators frequently choosing advertisements that I would not have considered or passing over advertisements that I would like to include in the project. When Sean presented this exceptionally brief advertisement for my consideration I initially attempted to wave him off of it and on to another advertisement. I thought that it might be a difficult choice for someone working as a guest curator for the first time. As an alternative I directed him to an advertisement in the same column of the March 23, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal, a subscription notice for printing “AN HISTORICAL JOURNAL OF THE CAMPAIGNS IN NORTH AMERICA, For the Years 1757, 8, 9, and 60 … By CAPTAIN JOHN KNOX.” We covered the Seven Years War at the beginning of the semester, so I reasoned that Sean could readily make connections between course content and that advertisement.
Sean, however, explained that he had intentionally chosen the advertisement about the harpsichord. As a Music minor, he previously enrolled in a course that examined the history of music. He wanted to draw together material from classes in different disciplines. Once I heard Sean’s explanation I enthusiastically approved the advertisement for the harpsichord. His choice achieved one of my goals for incorporating undergraduate guest curators into the project to fulfill the requirements of my Revolutionary America course: challenging students to consider connections between the material they encounter in my class and what they have learned in other History courses and classes offered by other departments. In addition, Sean demonstrated another point that I make to guest curators when we first discuss the project. The advertisement for the harpsichord was deceptively brief. At the beginning of the semester most of Sean’s peers may have passed over it, questioning its significance. Yet Sean used it to tell a robust story about entertainment, status, and changing technologies in the era of the American Revolution.