December 23

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

Pennsylvania Journal (December 23, 1772).

“Repeated INSULTS the City has lately received, by damaging, and taking away, the Public Lamps.”

On one of the shortest days of the year, the “WARDENS of the CITY” of Philadelphia offered a significant reward “for discovery of the person or persons, who … TOOK AWAY, one of the PUBLIC LAMPS” on Fourth Street.  To draw attention to this act of vandalism and theft, the wardens placed advertisements in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on December 23, 1772.  The wardens had determined that someone removed and stole the lamp sometime between ten and eleven on Saturday night.  That they could pinpoint the time that precisely suggested that members of the public took enough notice of the light provided by the lamps to notice when that particular lamp was lit for their safety and convenience and when it disappeared.

The wardens considered the removal of the lamp more than an act of vandalism.  They framed it as an assault on the city and its residents.  “The repeated INSULTS the City has lately received, by damaging, and taking away, the Public Lamps,” the wardens proclaimed, “WILL, doubtless, be PROPERLY RESENTED by the INHABITANTS.”  That being the case, the wardens “Request the ASSISTANCE of their FELLOW-CITIZENS, in order to a discovery of the Perpetrators of those infamous practices, that a check may be put, to a growing evil, of the most dangerous tendency.”  Public works, like street lamps, only benefited the public when they remained in place and optional.  The entire community, the wardens argued, shared the responsibility of identifying the vandals, just as the entire community benefitted from the installation of “Public Lamps” to light the streets during the winter months.

The compositors for the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal did their part in alerting the public to this call to action from the wardens of the city.  In the former, the notice ran immediately below the shipping news from the customs house.  As readers finished perusing news items, they encountered the advertisement offering “TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS REWARD” upon the conviction of the vandals.  Even if they did not closely examine other advertisements in the remainder of the issue, readers interested in the news likely saw this notice.  In the Pennsylvania Journal, the compositor placed the notice at the top of the first full column of advertising in the issue.  In the upper right corner of the third page, it appeared next to local news from Philadelphia.  For added measure, the compositor added a manicule to direct readers to the advertisement, the only manicule anywhere in that issue.

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