What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WATCHES … every Particular in repairing at HALF PRICE.”
For the past four years the Adverts 250 Project has traced newspaper advertisements placed by watchmaker John Simnet, first in Portsmouth in the New-Hampshire Gazette for a year and a half in 1769 and early 1770 and then in newspapers published in New York. In both locations, the cantankerous artisan engaged in public feuds with his competitors and sometimes ran notices that mocked and denigrated them.
At the end of January 1773, Simnet decided to insert an advertisement for his shop in New York in the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford. That put him in competition with Thomas Hilldrup, who had been advertising in the Connecticut Courant for months, Enos Doolittle, who had been advertising in that newspaper for six weeks, and other watchmakers in Hartford and other towns in Connecticut. It was an unusual choice for an artisan in New York to extend their advertising efforts to newspapers in neighboring colonies, especially when they had the option to run notices in multiple newspapers in New York. Did Simnet believe that he would gain clients in Hartford? Perhaps he thought his promotions – “every Particular in repairing at HALF PRICE” and “no future Expence, either for cleaning or mending” – would indeed convince faraway readers to send their watches to him when they needed maintenance.
Even if those offers caught the attention of prospective customers in Connecticut, the final lines of Simnet’s advertisement likely confused them. The advertisement previously ran in the New-York Journal for eight weeks, starting on December 3, 1772. In the most recent edition, published on January 21, 1773, Simnet added a short poem that addressed “Rhyming Pivot, of York, / With Head, light as Cork.” The “Rhyming Pivot” may have been Isaac Heron, a nearby neighbor and competitor, who included short verses in his advertisement that ran in the New-York Journal for several weeks, starting on December 24. At the conclusion of Heron’s notice, he asked “brethren of the Pivot,” fellow watchmakers, to confiscate certain watches that had gone missing from his shop if clients brought them to their shops “for repair or sale.” Simnet, easily agitated, apparently did not like that another watchmaker dared to try to generate business via notices in the public prints. He responded with his own poem that described his competitor’s merit as “a Joke or a Song” and declared that he belonged on Grub Street in London, known for authors who often lacked talent and the printers and booksellers who peddled works of dubious quality.
The poem may have resonated with readers of the New-York Journal who were familiar with Heron’s advertisement (and may have also witnessed Simnet’s feud with James Yeoman several months earlier), but readers of the Connecticut Courant had no context for understanding it. Why did Simnet choose to have his updated advertisement reproduced in its entirety rather than the original version, without the poem, that ran for so many weeks in New York. The ornery watchmaker was usually very calculated in his decisions about marketing. What made him decide that advertising in the Connecticut Courant was a good investment? Even if he considered it worth the costs, why did he include a poem that would have confounded prospective clients?