What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“New and astonishing performances in the dexterity of hand.”
Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements sometimes provide insight into the popular culture and entertainment of the day, including concerts and shows by itinerant performers. In their advertisements, many performers exhibited their showmanship to prospective audiences as part of their efforts to incite interest and convince them to see their acts in person. For instance, in an advertisement in the New-York Journal, one illusionist, the “celebrated HYMEN SAUNDERS” who had “Just arrived from EUROPE.” proclaimed that his show included “several new and astonishing performances in the dexterity of hand, different than what has been hitherto attempted, and such as was never seen in this province.” Saunders expected the novelty of his act to attract the attention of curious colonists. He further described his performance, whetting the appetite of the public. “His dexterity of hand, or grand deception,” he trumpeted, “will consist of a variety of entertaining as well as surprising tricks.” He had so much material to amuse and astound his audiences that “his performance will be divided into acts” with a “concert of music” between the acts. He promised that the room where he performed would be “illuminated,” allowing spectators good views of his sleight of hand, as well as “well air’d” for their comfort.
Saunders’s advertisement was the first one that appeared after the news in the October 25, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal, likely increasing the likelihood that local audiences would take note of it. He announced that his first performance would take place on October 29, so by the time the advertisement ran again on November 1 and in subsequent issues, readers had already missed out on being among the first to attend the show. The performer underscored that his “stay in this city will be but a few weeks,” further warning prospective audiences that they had only a limited time to see his “grand deception” for themselves before he departed for other towns. In addition to his public performances, Saunders also offered a “private exhibition” to those who hired him at least a day in advance. Like other itinerant performers, Saunders also relied on word of mouth to promote his act, especially after locals saw his “dexterity of hand” in person, but he did not rely on such reviews alone. Even after his performances commenced, he continued to run advertisements to promote both the show and his persona, the “celebrated” performer who brought a novel act all the way from Europe to the colonies.