What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The manufacture he governs is 100 miles from real.”
It was probably only a matter of time before John Simnet, “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London,” engaged in a war of words with a competitor in New York. In late 1768, he migrated to New Hampshire and began placing advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette. Over the next eighteen months, Simnet developed a rivalry with Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith, a watchmaker who already resided there. The two waged a feud in their advertisements in the public prints, though Simnet was often more aggressive. In a series of newspaper notices, the newcomer ridiculed his rival’s skill and intelligence before deciding to relocate to New York in the summer of 1770. He occasionally published advertisements in his new city, but focused on promoting his own business rather than denigrating competitors.
That changed in March 1772. In fairness to Simnet, another watchmaker, James Yeoman, seemed to start the dispute when he published an advertisement that seemed to critique the “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London.” In an advertisement that first ran in the March 12 edition of the New-York Journal, Yeoman listed his credentials, stating that he “received his Instructions in the Business from the ingenious Mr. Neale, (whose great Knowledge in Mechanics was well known),” and declared that he “can with Propriety declare himself a real Manufacturer, having had the Government of a large Manufactory from its Infancy to its Maturity, one Hundred Miles from London.” Yeoman cast doubt on Simnet’s description of his occupation and work in London. As a further insult, he declared, “The above is not the Result of Vanity or Parade, for, should it be doubted, proper Testimonial shall be produced to prove the Assertion.” Yeoman suggested that Simnet’s advertisements consisted of nothing more than puffery.
Perhaps the argument started before anything appeared in print. Simnet and Yeoman may have exchanged words in person before Yeoman took to the pages of the New-York Journal. Once Yeoman published his advertisement, Simnet responded in the next issue, updating a notice that previously ran for four weeks. He doubled the length of his notice, starting with an introduction that instructed that “Persons who write in public on this art, where faith is be reposed, should consult their ability, and have strict regard to – not pull down truth.” Sinnet did not mention Yeoman by name, but it was clear that his description of “Hocus Pocus” addressed the content of Yeoman’s advertisement. In ridiculing an unnamed rival, Simnet remarked that the “manufacture he governs is 100 miles from real,” alluding to Yeoman’s claim that he managed “a large Manufactory … one Hundred Miles from London.” Simnet also quoted Yeoman’s proclamation that he repaired clocks and watches “as cheap as by any Person in this City” in his own notice. “As cheap as any person in this city,–can we save the value of a bowl of punch, or a turkey by reading that? –alas–No.” He further underscored that “words are wind, and declare the expresser full of emptiness” before concluding with a poem that cast aspersions on Neale, Yeoman’s mentor.
No matter who started the dispute, Simnet and Yeoman took their argument to the public prints. Simnet once again had a rival to denigrate in his advertisements. Purveyors of goods and services rarely resorted to negative advertising, usually preferring to promote their own businesses and largely ignoring their competitors. They often stated that they possessed the greatest skill or offered the lowest prices, but rarely did they directly critique or even address others who provided the same goods and services. That made Simnet and Yeoman’s advertisements all the more notable and perhaps even entertaining for readers.