October 21

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 21, 1773).

“He has improved on the late patent Windlass.”

William Smith, a shipwright, advertised windlasses, mechanisms for moving heavy weights, in the October 21, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy.  In his efforts to convince “Merchants or Captains” to purchase his windlasses, Smith emphasized innovations that made them superior to “the late patent Windlass.”  According to the shipwright, he “has contrived a new plan by which two men will have a strain equal to seven in less time.”  That significantly reduced the effort necessary to raise an anchor.  In addition, Smith noted that he “fixed the palls” or pawls “to catch twenty-four times in once going round.”  The “Merchants or Captains” that the shipwright addressed knew that pawls used on anchor windlasses prevented free-spooling chains by grabbing and securing individual links.

Innovation did not result in higher prices for Smith’s windlasses.  To the contrary, he asserted that his windlass “will not cost as much money as the late patent windlass, by at least one fourth.”  Those “Merchants or Captains” could acquire a superior piece of equipment at lower prices.  Furthermore, Smith advised that “the improvement may be fixed to any common windlass, with a power far greater then the late patent windlass.”  The shipwright encouraged prospective customers to consult with him about making the modifications.

When advertisers promoted new technologies, they sometimes included testimonials to demonstrate the accuracy of the claims they made.  Even more commonly, they reported that others examined and endorsed their products, neglecting to provide any names or commentary.  Still, they aimed to convince prospective customers that they did not have to rely on an advertiser’s word alone.  For his part, Smith confided that his “model has been surveyed by several gentlemen, who unanimously agree that it is the greatest improvement yet made.”  That suggested to “Merchants or Captains” that they would be satisfied with the performance of Smith’s windlass once they gave it a chance.  Today, many advertisers emphasize innovation and new technologies in their marketing campaigns.  When they do so, they draw on a long history.  Such advertising strategies had precursors in the eighteenth century.

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