What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“If Rats could speak, they would declare their Sentiments.”
As spring turned to summer in 1770, the rivalry between watchmakers John Simnet and Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith got even more heated. In the June 8 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, Griffith escalated their feud by publishing an advertisement calling Simnet a mountebank as well as a novice and stranger to the trade. He had shown some restraint in taking several weeks to respond to an earlier advertisement in which Simnet had disparaged Griffith’s skill and stated that the watches he returned to customers “never had been properly repaired.” Simnet, usually the more aggressive of the two competitors, published his response in the next issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette, once again escalating the war of words.
In that advertisement, Simnet did not promote his own proficiency but instead leveled two attacks at Griffith. In the first, he compared Griffith to a rat scrounging for survival and expecting others to provide the sustenance he needed for no other reason that he needed it. “[I]f Rats could speak,” Simnet proclaimed, “they would declare their Sentiments, say they must eat, and we live by gnawing down what you endeavour to rear.” Simnet then declared that he tolerated his rival, “this Creature … with few Cloaths to cover his Flesh, and but very little Flesh to cover his Bones.” In this metaphor, Griffith was not even a good rat who managed “to eat the Fruits of others Labour.” All the same, Siment warned others to “take care” in their dealings with his competitor.
To that point in the advertisement, Simnet had not yet named Griffith, though readers of the New-Hampshire Gazettewould have been very familiar with the enmity the two watchmakers felt for each other. The compositor also helped readers make the connection by once again placing the two advertisements one after another. In the previous issue Simnet’s earlier advertisement came first, followed immediately by Griffith’s response. In the June 15 edition, Griffith’s advertisement appeared once again, this time with a response from Griffith underneath it so readers moved directly from to the other.
In making his second attack, Simnet did name the “rough Clockmaker” that readers already knew Simnet compared to a rat.” Simnet published a “Copy of a Bill by Nath’l. Sheaff Griffith, on Mr. Samuel Pickering of Greenland, for repairing his Watch.” Simnet asserted that “Mr. Pickering desires the Watch may be inspected by Judges, before he pays for it,” but “Griffith refuses, and now keeps it in his Possession.” Whatever the accuracy of that account, it suggested to readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette that Griffith did not want his lack of skill exposed to even greater scrutiny. To that end, he was in a standoff with a customer over the price he charged for repairing a watch. According to Simnet, Griffith expected Pickering to pay £1.4.11 without independent confirmation that he made appropriate repairs. He demanded that Pickering pay before he would return the watch. By publicizing that Pickering wished for “Judges” to examine Griffith’s work as well as the charges that appeared on the bill, Simnet further escalated his own dispute with the rival watchmaker by encouraging others to intervene.
Did this help or hurt Simnet in an era when advertisers rarely mentioned their competitors by name? It was bold enough that Simnet declared that “Most of those who profess this Employ in this Country, are rough Clockmakers.” Most artisans emphasized their own skill, stating that they were as proficient or better than others who followed their trade, but they usually did not denigrate the work performed by others as a means of enhancing their own status. Ever since he arrived in New Hampshire after pursuing his trade for more than two decades in London, Simnet had disparaged local clock- and watchmakers, starting with general comments and eventually targeting Griffith in particular. Readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette may have considered the ongoing feud between Simnet and Griffith amusing, but was it effective or ultimately too unseemly at a time when advertisements did not often incorporate insults and barbs directed at the competition? The true beneficiary of this series of advertisements may very well have been the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette who earned additional revenues every time that Griffith or Simnet chose to publish a new volley.