September 28

What was advertised in colonial America 250 years ago today?

Handbill: Mr. Bates, “Horsemanship,” (Boston: [likely Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks], 1773). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

“He will perform on ONE, TWO, THREE, and FOUR HORSES.”

In the course of examining newspaper notices, the Adverts 250 Project also explores all sorts of advertising media that circulated in the eighteenth century, including trade cards, billheads, broadsides, handbills, magazine wrappers, subscription papers, and shop signs.  Those media likely circulated more widely in early America than the examples that survive in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections suggest.  Unlike newspapers that have been preserved in complete or nearly complete runs, other advertising media were much more ephemeral.  In addition, those available for study often lack dates, while the mastheads declare dates for newspaper notices.  Sometimes manuscript additions, such as a receipted bill on the back of Mary Symonds’s elegant trade card, testify to when an advertisement circulated, though additional research suggests that the trade card quite likely had been produced earlier.

Exceptions exist.  For instance, a broadside announcing the auction of enslaved men, women, and children in Charleston, South Carolina, bears the date the slave traders composed the copy, July 24, 1769, and the date of the sale, August 3, indicating the period that the broadside circulated.  Similarly, a handbill that advertised feats of horsemanship performed by Mr. Bates in Boston includes a date, “TUESDAY next the 28th. of September.”  Though lacking a year, the advertising copy corresponds to a series of newspaper notices that ran in several publications in the fall of 1773.  That makes this a rare occasion that the Adverts 250 Project presents an advertisement other than a newspaper notice that definitely circulated 250 years ago today.  As colonizers traversed the streets of Boston, they encountered Bates’s handbills.  They likely saw a variety of other advertising media, including broadsides posted around town, trade cards and billheads distributed by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans, and signs that marked the locations of shops and taverns.  Bates’s handbill testifies to the presence of advertising beyond newspapers in the busy port on the eve of the American Revolution.

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