December 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Pennsylvania Journal (December 20, 1770).

“D.K’s performance is scandalous and preposterous.”

Lewis Fay’s advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal caused some controversy.  For several weeks in November 1770, the “Periwig Maker and Hair Dresser” originally from Paris, announced that he now offered his services to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia.  He proudly proclaimed that he could style women’s hair “in fifty different manners” and men’s hair “in thirty fashionable and different manners.”  As Kate Haulman and others have shown, many colonists considered elaborate hairstyles an unnecessary luxury that also signaled a lack of character and predisposition to vices.

D.K. was one such critic.  Upon encountering Fay’s advertisement in the November 8 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, D.K. was so incensed as to send a letter to the editor of the Pennsylvania Chronicle about it.  That letter ran on December 3.  Even though Fay clearly identified both ladies and gentlemen as prospective clients in his advertisement, D.K. thought “on the first perusal” that it was “probably a satire on the Ladies, who in general are too fond of new fashions.”  Critiques of consumption and fashion often devolved to gendered attacks on women, even when they engaged in the same practices as men.  D.K. went on to describe Fay as “a worthless daring animal” and an instrument of the devil, “the arch-enemy of mankind,” because he sought “to propogate his infernal arts” in Philadelphia.  D.K. then quoted extensively from Fay’s original advertisement, thus supplementing a different advertisement that Fay happened to insert on the previous page of that issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle.  After quoting Fay’s claims about how many hairstyles he had mastered, D.K. exclaimed, “I think Cerberus himself could not belch forth more horrid and hateful language.”  As far as D.K. was concerned Fay should have labored in the workhouse rather than “dressing hair, in the shameful ridiculous manner he proposes.”  Still, D.K. imagined that Fay might attract a clientele of “poor thoughtless vain Girls, or some giddy wanton Matrons, or brainless fluttering Fops.”  D.K. did not want to see them become victims of “this French Metamorphoser.”  The anonymous critic concluded by stating that he hoped to “prevent so abominable a practice from getting encouragement in any of our provinces” by raising the alarm with his letter.

That editorial garnered a response among the advertisements in the December 20, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal.  Another anonymous correspondent, who signed as “ADMIRER of ARTS,” defended Fay.  Admirer described D.K.’s “censure upon the Ladies in general, and Mr. Fay in particular” as “scandalous and preposterous.”  Admirer did not wish to further dignify most of the editorial with a response, but did clarify that Fay “has resided at Boston with the greatest applause, for his superior Knowledge of dressing and preserving the hair, exactness and sobriety.”  Fay’s original advertisement ignited a passionate response that was part of a larger discourse about consumption, fashion, luxury, and vice in the era of the American Revolution.  The debate in the public prints took place in various formats, sometimes among letters to the editor and other times in advertisements.  Paid notices did not operate independently of other contents of newspapers.  Instead, colonists read … and responded … back and forth as they imposed political and cultural meaning on consumption.

Leave a Reply