What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“THE CARPENTERS ARMS.”
The woodcut that adorned the upper left corner of Samuel Caruthers’s advertisement demanded attention from readers, perhaps making it well worth the investment. Three compasses appeared within an ornate cartouche, itself enclosed within a simple square border with “THE CARPENTERS ARMS” across the top. In the advertising copy, Caruthers advised readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette that he no longer operated a hardware shop but instead returned to making tools for carpenters.
The visual image made his advertisement unique among those in the June 27, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Only five advertisements included woodcuts of any kind; the other four all featured images of ships at sea, each announcing the upcoming departure of one vessel or another and seeking passengers and freight. The printers, David Hall and William Sellers, supplied those woodcuts to the advertisers, drawing from stock images that most colonial printers kept on hand. Those images could be used interchangeably. It did not matter whether a ship set sail for Charleston, Dublin, or London. Similarly, most printers also had woodcuts depicting houses (but not any particular house), horses, indentured servants running away (but not any particular indentured servant), enslaved people for sale (but not any particular enslaved person), and enslaved people liberating themselves (but not any particular fugitive from slavery). Each generic image corresponded to a common kind of advertisement that ran in colonial newspapers; the lack of specific details made these woodcuts appropriate to accompany any advertisement from the genre they represented.
On the other hand, Caruthers published an advertisement with an image specific to his business, making his notice both more visible on a page that consisted almost entirely of text and more memorable for the uniqueness of the image. Caruthers incurred additional expense in commissioning a woodcut for “THE CARPENTERS ARMS,” but the image testified to his skill in creating all sorts of planes, saws, and other edged tools. The rococo cartouche, reminiscent of those that appeared on trade cards that circulated in London and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia and other major American port cities, enhanced his claims to “long experience” by presenting him as an accomplished craftsman rather than a mere mechanic. Associating such a genteel image with tools suggested quality and a positive reputation, characteristics that Caruthers likely believed would resonate with fellow artisans. Incorporating baroque images into advertisements was not a strategy reserved for merchants, shopkeepers, tailors, and milliners marketing their wares and services to the better sorts. Instead, advertisers like Caruthers suspected that such images engaged customers from other backgrounds looking to purchase tools for earning a living.