August 18

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

Pennsylvania Journal (August 18, 1773).

“This important part of the education of their children.”

In the summer of 1773, Monsieur de Viart introduced himself to the residents of Philadelphia with an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal.  He informed “Gentlemen and Ladies of this City, that he proposes to open an ACADEMY OF DANCING,” underscoring that “he has, for many years, with approbation, professed in several parts of France.”  Accordingly, parents of prospective pupils should consider him “capable of qualifying the youth of both sexes committed to his care, in a very short time, for any assembly whatsoever.”  Viart described himself as “lately arrived from Paris,” conveniently not mentioning that he had been in the colonies for at least a year and offered lessons in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Paris certainly had greater cachet in the minds of genteel Philadelphians than Portsmouth did!  Similarly, Viart realized that he would likely enroll more students in the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the colonies.

Whether in Philadelphia or Portsmouth, Viart’s marketing strategy remained the same.  He played on the anxieties of parents who wanted to prepare their children to represent themselves and their families well at balls and, more generally, in all sorts of social encounters.  In his effort to set himself apart from other dancing masters, Viart republished copy from his advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette earlier that year: “It is not everyone, who pretends to teach this delicate art, who will take pains to instruct their pupils, in those rules of decorum and politeness, which are so absolutely necessary to be inculcated into them, before they can step abroad, into the world, with elegance and ease.”  In a single sentence, Viart called into question the abilities of his competitors to teach dancing while simultaneously asserting that their flawed instruction in the steps distracted them from focusing on comportment.  Viart knew that graceful movement and impeccable manners reinforced each other.  He warned that “it often happens, that scholars (through the ignorance or negligence of their masters) are guilty of great rudeness, and commit gross blunders, on their first appearance, in company.”  Concerned parents could avoid such a travesty, instead depending on Viart’s “utmost care and assiduity, in this important part of the education of their children.”  When they completed their lessons, his pupils would hold their own in Paris rather than look like backwater provincials from Portsmouth.

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