What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JOSEPH STANSBURY, Hath just imported … GLASS AND EARTHEN WARES.”
Molly Torres, a student in my Revolutionary America class in Fall 2021, selected this advertisement that Joseph Stansbury placed in the June 8, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet. It prompted a conversation about the many trajectories for learning about the past presented by each advertisement. In most instances, I encouraged students to focus on a particular item, such as tea, and how it helped us understand commerce, politics, or daily life in the era of the American Revolution. I cautioned that examining individual advertisers would usually be more difficult, especially for students with limited experience undertaking research that integrated primary and secondary sources. Many advertisers left behind few traces beyond their newspaper notices. Some advertisers, however were so famous … or infamous … that more information about them was readily available to novice researchers.
Such was the case with Joseph Stansbury, infamous as the “main intercessory between Benedict Arnold and John André.” According to an online exhibit about “Spy Letters of the American Revolution” sponsored by the William L. Clements Library, Stansbury held a variety of positions, including commissioner of the city watch, during the British occupation of Philadelphia. He remained in the city when the British withdrew, though Stansbury traveled to New York “specifically to meet with André about Arnold.” He did not stay in the city long, not wanting to raise suspicions about his loyalties upon returning to Philadelphia. Upon his return, he received a letter with instructions from the British officer and then became “the mediator between the communications of Arnold and André.” They corresponded in cipher, using identical copies of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England as keys for decoding their letters.
Researching this advertisement about a “LARGE AND CAPITAL ASSORTMENT OF GLASS AND EARTHEN WARES of the most approved kinds” took Molly in unexpected directions. Neither of us anticipated that working on this project would lead to learning more about espionage during the American Revolution or the nation’s most infamous traitor and his accomplices. Examining the Clements Library’s online exhibition also gave us an opportunity to discuss archives, special collections, and the process of conducting more sustained research. As I’ve previously written, one of my favorite parts of inviting students to serve as guest curators of the Adverts 250 Project is discovering where their research will take us once they select which advertisements to feature. That is so much more interesting than if I unilaterally set the syllabus at the beginning of the semester and we did not deviate from it.