What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Will be READ, A Ballad OPERA.”
Advertisements in colonial newspapers reveal aspects of popular culture in colonial America, everything from fireworks displays to stage performances. Some of them also allow us to trace the routes traveled by itinerant performers who moved from town to town. A series of advertisements inserted in several newspapers published in New England in the fall of 1769, for instance, reveal the itinerary of “a PERSON who has READ and SUNG in most of the great Towns in AMERICA.” In September, he performed a one-man rendition of The Beggar’s Opera in both Providence (advertised in the Providence Gazette) and Boston (advertised in the Boston Chronicle and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter). He soon moved on to Salem, where he advertised a different show in the Essex Gazette in October.
For this performance, he read “A Ballad OPERA, call’d Damon & Phillida.” The delivery remained the same: “He personates all the Characters, and enters into the different Humours or Passions as they change from one to another, throughout the Opera.” He supplemented the main attraction with “celebrated Songs in the OPERA of Artaxerxes” and “a celebrated CANTATA, called Neptune & Amymone.” Readers of the Essex Gazette, prospective audiences for the performance, may very well have seen advertisements for The Beggar’s Opera in the Boston newspapers, given their circulation beyond the busy urban port and the proximity to Salem. By switching to another opera during his stay in Salem, the unnamed performer presented prospective audiences with something new and novel. To further entice local audiences to attend this new program, the performer added a nota bene advising that “His Stay will be short.” In other words, anyone interested in seeing the performance needed to purchase tickets as quickly as possible or else risk not having a chance to observe this dramatic spectacle before the itinerant performer moved along to another of the “great Towns.” Part of the marketing strategy depended on scarcity, but rather than scarcity of goods it emphasized scarcity of performances and limited opportunities to see the show. The performer challenged readers not to miss an event that would have their friends and neighbors talking long after it was over.