What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WATCHES are restored to their pristine vigour.”
A month had passed since Thomas Hilldrup, a “WATCH MAKER from LONDON” who recently relocated to Hartford, inserted an advertisement that originally ran for several weeks in the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy as well. When he did so, he revised the dateline to “July 20, 1773,” but did not otherwise alter his advertising copy. Near the end of August, he decided that he wished for the same notice to run in the New-London Gazette. He once again altered the dateline, this time to “Aug. 20, 1773,” but did not make other changes. Apparently, the watchmaker felt confident in his address to prospective customers as it appeared in the Connecticut Courant for the past two months.
By the time he placed that notice in the New-London Gazette, Hilldrup had been in Connecticut for the better part of a year. He had been there long enough that it was not the first time that he attempted to extend his share of the market by saturating the newspapers published in the colony with his advertisements. He initially published an advertisement in the September 15, 1772, edition of the Connecticut Courant and then revised it a month later. Over time, he placed the revised advertisement in the Connecticut Journal on January 8, 1773, and in the New-London Gazette three weeks later. The watchmaker established a pattern of starting with a single newspaper, the one printed in his own town, and then attempting to reach other prospective customers in the region though the same advertisement in other newspapers.
Such industriousness may have caught the attention of John Simnet, a watchmaker in New York, as newspapers published in Connecticut circulated beyond that colony. Simnet learned his craft in London and had decades of experience working with clients there, a point of pride that he frequently highlighted in his advertisements. Given his background, Simnet also promoted himself as the only truly skilled watchmaker in the area. He had a long history of denigrating his competitors in his advertisements. The cantankerous Simnet may have taken exception to Hilldrup’s arrival on the scene, considering Hartford too close for a competitor who listed similar credentials in his advertisements. He had not previously placed notices in any of the newspapers printed in Connecticut, but decided to run an advertisement in the January 26, 1773, edition of the Connecticut Courant. In choosing the newspaper published in Hartford, Hilldrup’s new location and a town more distant from New York than New Haven and New London, Simnet increased the chances that Hilldrup would see his advertisement.
For his part, Hilldrup did not respond directly to Simnet in the public prints, but he did follow the other watchmaker’s lead in making veiled references to competitors in an advertisement in the April 27 edition of the Connecticut Courant. The headline for that advertisement, “WATCHES! only,” seemed to comment on a notice in which Enos Doolittle offered his services repairing clocks and watches in the previous issue. In addition, Hilldrup included a nota bene that seemingly mocked Doolittle for hiring a journey who completed an apprenticeship in London, proclaiming that “I am capable of going through the business myself without any assistance.” That nota bene also appeared in the original iteration of Hilldrup’s second advertisement that eventually found its way into multiple newspapers, though he removed it after several weeks in the Connecticut Courant.
As Hilldrup worked to cultivate a clientele that would secure his position in Hartford, he published advertisements in newspapers in several towns. Achieving that kind of reach with his notices was only part of his marketing strategy. In addition to engaging prospective customers, those advertisements put Hilldrup in conversation with competitors, directly and indirectly. Rather than mere announcements that readers might easily dismiss, the watchmaker crafted messages that resonated beyond any single issue of a colonial newspaper. In an advertisement that eventually appeared in all three newspapers published in Connecticut, he requested “the favour of those gentlemen who are or may be satisfied of his abilities, to assist in recommending” his services to others.