What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He therefore flatters himself, that he, a young beginner, will receive suitable encouragement from the generous public.”
Benjamin January, a “BOOK-BINDER and STATIONER,” offered his services to residents of Philadelphia in an advertisement in the October 13, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. He declared that he had recently opened a shop “where he carries on the BOOK-BINDING BUSINESS … and where Merchants, Shop-keepers, and others, may be supplied with all sorts of account books, and and ruled to any pattern, at the lowest price.” He also listed a variety of stationery and writing supplies available for sale. Like many other advertisers, January emphasized customer service as an important part of his business. He promised that “he shall make it his peculiar study to merit the approbation of all such, who please to employ him, so shall it be his constant endeavour to give, to the utmost of his power, entire satisfaction.” In a final plea to prospective customers, the bookbinder and stationer emphasized that he was “a young beginner” who would benefit “suitable encouragement from the generous public.” He suggested that consumers had a duty to reward him for his enterprising spirit.
That “young beginner” apparently convinced prospective customers to give him a chance, at least for a time. In the 1780s, he remained in business and continued to advertise by distributing an engraved trade card that gave his location as “the sign of the Bible & Dove” with “in Front Street” written in a blank space. The bookbinder and stationer could change locations, retain the sign associated with his shop, and update his trade card accordingly. He first listed Front Street as his location in an advertisement for a lost pocketbook in the May 3, 1780, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but did not make reference to “the sign of the Bible and Dove” until advertising in the June 5, 1783, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet. Advertising did not guarantee success. The December 3, 1787, edition of the Independent Gazetteer carried a bankruptcy notice “issued forth against Benjamin January, of the city of Philadelphia, Bookbinder and Stationer.” Following that setback, January tried again, soliciting “a continuance of the favours of his former employers, and of all others who wish to encourage him” at his new location on Chestnut Street in an advertisement in the February 13, 1788, edition of the Independent Gazetteer. He continued advertising in newspapers throughout the remainder of the 1780s and into the 1790s.
Whatever the difficulties that January encountered, he joined several merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans in marketing efforts that extended beyond newspaper notices, the most common form of advertising in eighteenth-century America. His trade card resembled those that circulated in London and urban ports in the colonies. An ornate border depicted books, ink wells, shakers, quills, and desk accessories. A ribbon woven throughout the border listed other wares, including “INK POWDER,” “SLATES,” “WAFERS,” “PENCILS,” “WAX,” and “PAPER.” In the text contained within the border, January advanced some of the same appeals he deployed when he introduced himself to readers of the Pennsylvania Journal and other newspapers published in Philadelphia. He asserted “all Sorts of Account Books are Made & Ruled to any Pattern” and sold “all Sorts of stationary wares at the Lowest Rates.” Such a fine trade card signaled initiative and industriousness, though January may not have received the return on this investment that he hoped. Still, his trade card testifies to the rich visual landscape of advertising media that circulated in Philadelphia during the era of the American Revolution.