What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“[B]OSTON Nov. 20. An Advertisement.”
The December 9, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette included an advertisement reprinted from one of the Boston newspapers. Or did it? In their effort to acquire sufficient content to fill the pages of newspapers, colonial printers liberally reprinted news and other content that previously appeared in other newspapers. This usually did not include advertisements. After all, printers expected to be paid to insert those in their newspapers. Yet sometimes printers considered an advertisement so entertaining that they reprinted them as novelties to amuse their readers.
At a glance, that appears to have been the case with “An Advertisement” for a concert in Boston. It featured an awkward poem, one even more poorly constructed than most rhymes used to promote consumer goods and services in eighteenth-century advertisements. In the New-London Gazette, it appeared immediately after news (including news from Boston) and before an assortment of paid notices, acting as a transition between the two types of content. The advertisement carried a dateline that attributed it to an unnamed newspaper published in “[B]OSTON Nov. 20.” That date, however, was impossible. November 20, 1768, was a Sunday. No printers anywhere in the colonies published newspapers on Sundays. The date was not merely an error. The “Advertisement” had not appeared in any of the newspapers printed in Boston in the past month. The missing “B” in “[B]OSTON” may have been a wink and a nod to readers of the New-London Gazette that the purported advertisement was actually a piece with another purpose, some sort of political or satirical commentary on current events.
What was its purpose? That may have been readily apparent to readers in 1768, but it has not remained clear with the passage of time. Colonial newspapers are peppered with quips considered humorous at the time that do not translate well for subsequent generations. The opening line of this “Advertisement” invited “all Ladies who paint” to attend a concert and a ball. “Ladies who paint” may have referred to those of such status that they could spend leisure time learning arts like painting, but it may have also been a jibe at women perceived to be promiscuous because they wore cosmetics. It very well could have been a conflation of the two. The invitation to a concert by “various Masters of some sort” followed by a dancing at a ball suggested close interactions with the opposite sex, as did the ambiguous suggestion that “they may retire to their Bed, or their Fire” at the end of the evening.
The advertisement never specified where concert or ball would take place or the exact time, but it did direct those interested to acquire “your Tickets near Liberty Tree.” Did that reference inject politics into the poem? Or did it merely reference a well-known Boston landmark that could complete the final rhyme. The final two lines stated that “In Lawful or Sterling, it heeds not a Farthing, / If you give a JOAN, as a Fee.” What did the author mean by that last reference? Except for the first word of the poem, which was capitalized by convention, only the words “JOAN” and “CHASE” appeared in all capitals, suggesting that readers were to take note of them. Did the “Advertisement” name an individual? Did it imply that “all Ladies who paint” should instead “CHASE JOAN?” Did it make some other sort of quip?
The Oxford English Dictionary includes two definitions for “joan,” both in use at the time the poem was written: “a generic name for a female rustic” and the “name for a close-fitting cap worn by women in the latter half of the 18th century.” Perhaps “JOAN” meant a cap of liberty, an increasingly popular symbol as the imperial crisis continued. (The same day this “Advertisement” appeared in the New-London Gazette an advertisement for an almanac on the front page of the New-Hampshire Gazette proclaimed that it included “eight curious Plates,” but described the one that depicted the “celebrated Patron of Liberty JOHN WILKES” with a “Cupid, with the Cap of LIBERTY.”) Perhaps the poem that masqueraded as an advertisement was meant to offer instruction to the women of Boston and elsewhere that they should concern themselves less with overcoming their anxieties that they were rustics who needed to resort to painting, music, and dance to secure their status and instead concern themselves with activities that advanced the cause of liberty for the colonies.
Either the printer or someone else went to some trouble to make a point to the readers of the New-London Gazette, especially the female readers. The poem in the counterfeit advertisement may have merely made some sort of jest, but it also could have delivered trenchant political or social commentary that readers would not have missed.