What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Turtle, for large Companies, dressed to Perfection.”
When Edward Bardin opened the King’s Arms Tavern in New York in the summer of 1770, he did not confine his advertising to the newspapers published in that city. Instead, he also placed a notice in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, advising “Gentlemen, Ladies and others” of the amenities available at his establishment. He promised to entertain them “in the most complete and genteel Manner.” To achieve that goal, he acquired “a good Stock of neat Wines and other Liquors, a professed Cook, and other proper Attendants.” He also supplied “the public Papers” for his customers, likely including the New-York Journal, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. He may have also subscribed to newspapers printed in other cities and towns in the colonies and perhaps even London as well. Bardin also offered “convenient Lodgings” for “Gentlemen who are Strangers,” including those who saw his advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and then traveled to New York. The tavernkeeper aimed to impress, contending that he had everything “necessary to render” the King’s Arms “as complete a House of Business as any on the Continent in America.”
Bardin emphasized one additional amenity for prospective guests: “Turtle, for large Companies, dressed to perfection.” Tavernkeepers occasionally mentioned that they provided turtle, shorthand for turtle feasts. By the middle of the eighteenth century, turtle feasts became popular among the elite in London and the largest cities in the colonies. In “An Historical and Zooarchaeological Approach to the Study of Turtle-based Foods in the City of Brotherly Love, ca. 1750-1850,” Teagan Schweitzer notes that the turtles for these feasts were often “large ocean-bound green sea turtles … in the range of 50 to 300 pounds” and “imported from the West Indies.” Due to their size, they were served at banquets, just as Bardin suggested in his advertisement. According to Schweitzer, “Hannah Glasse’s 1751 edition of The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, the earliest English cookbook to include a recipe for turtle, aside from the soup there was a dish highlighting the calipash (the back shell), one for the calipee (the belly), a dish made from the offal (entrails), and one from the fins.” Recipes for turtle appeared in several eighteenth-century cookbooks. In The Experienced English House-keeper (1769), Elizabeth Raffald “gave instructions for preparing seven dishes from a turtle weighing a hundred pounds.” For one final example, Schweitzer highlights a recipe for turtle in Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796), the first American cookbook. Simmons included only thirty-nine recipes in that cookbook.
In the second half of the eighteenth-century, the turtle feast became a popular pastime for genteel diners who gathered for banquets at taverns like the King’s Arms in New York. Bardin mentioned “Turtle, for large Companies, dressed to perfection” in his advertisement as an additional mark of distinction for his tavern, an amenity as important as the “neat Wines,” “public Papers,” and “proper Attendants” that made his establishment rival any other in the colonies.