GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A compleat set of gold and silver smith’s tools.”
On May 1, 1769, this advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury informed the public that there would be a public sale of household and kitchen items at the house of Nicholas Roosevelt, deceased. Roosevelt was probably a silversmith since the advertisements included “a compleat set of gold and silver smith’s tools.” Silver was used to create many items like teapots, silverware, plates, and bowls. Silversmithing was a notable occupation in colonial America, often seen as more of an art than a trade, according to the historians at Colonial Williamsburg.
In order to create a simple silver bowl, a silversmith needed to heat silver to 2000 degrees in a graphite and clay crucible. This liquid silver was then be poured out into a large sheet which would be hammered and molded into the desired shape. This was a difficult process because the silver would be extremely fragile while in this cooling state. To keep the silver malleable the smith repeatedly heated it and then plunged into an acid bath while it was being worked. This was a long process that required many different hammers – a “compleat set” – to achieve a perfectly smooth bowl.
These silver items had to be perfect not only because of the expensive materials used, but because they were sold to elite buyers. Silver teapots, bowls, and other items were very expensive commodities that only the upper class could afford, which they would then use to show off their affluence to their guests.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The same day that the advertisement concerning the sale of items from Nicholas Roosevelt’s estate appeared in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury it also ran in the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy. The copy was exactly the same, though the compositors for the two newspapers made slightly different decisions about the format. The executor certainly sought to achieve maximum exposure for this sale, having previously advertised in the New-York Journal on April 27. The copy for that advertisement, however, deviated from what appeared in the other newspapers. The first portion was consistent, but the notice did not include the second half that offered the tools of Roosevelt’s trade for sale.
What explained this difference? Usually when advertisers invested the time and expense in placing notices in multiple newspapers they submitted identical copy to the printing offices. Why did the executor expand on the original advertisement from the New-York Journal when it ran in other newspapers a few days later? Perhaps the circumstances for settling Roosevelt’s estate changed. Maybe the executor had arranged for a buyer for the tools but then the deal fell apart, prompting a revised version of the advertisement.
Whatever the reason for adding the tools to the second iteration of the advertisement, the executor did not consider it necessary to update the original advertisement when it made a subsequent appearance in the New-York Journal on May 4. It ran just as it had the previous week, without mention of the “compleat set of gold and silver smith’s tools.” With the revised advertisement slated for publication in the other two newspapers one more time on May 8, the executor may have considered that sufficient visibility for attracting buyers. Alternately, the executor may not have considered it worth the expense to tinker with the wording of the advertisement in the New-York Journal since the type had already been set. The executor may have already received special consideration when placing that advertisement. The colophon listed a fee to run advertisements for a minimum of four weeks with additional fees for each subsequent insertion, yet this advertisement ran only twice.
Collating advertisements that appeared in multiple newspapers sometimes produces fairly definitive conclusions. For instance, identical copy with variations in format strongly suggests that advertisers were responsible for generating copy and compositors responsible for graphic design. The variations in the advertisements concerning Roosevelt’s estate, however, raise questions about decisions made by advertisers and business practices in printing offices, questions that elude answers when examining only eighteenth-century newspapers. They may also elude answers when consulting printers’ records and other sources, but the questions themselves do provide direction for another stage of research on advertising in early America. As the guest curators in my Revolutionary America class reach the end of the semester, this is another important lesson: no matter who much we have learned in this process, there is still so much more to discover. Seeking answers sometimes leads us to far more questions.