June 18

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

Jun 18 - 6:18 1770 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (June 18, 1770).

“Sam-Mill SAWS … By BENJAMIN HUMPHREYS.”

Visual images were relatively rare in eighteenth-century newspapers.  Mastheads often, but not always, incorporated images that became familiar to readers, but otherwise when images did appear in newspapers, they tended to accompany advertisements.  Among those images, most depicted vessels at sea, houses, horses, runaway indentured servants, or enslaved people for sale or escaping from those who held them in bondage.  Variation among these images was minor, allowing printers to use them interchangeably in advertisements.  Readers easily recognized them as stock images supplied by printers, images related to the content of advertisements but not created to adorn any particular advertisements.  When it came to ships seeking passengers and cargo, real estate, horses “to cover” (or breed), runaway servants, and the slave trade, printers did steady business selling advertisements, making it worth their investment in stock images.

The familiarity of those images made others all the more striking when they accompanied advertisements.  Even images with fairly simple designs distinguished the few advertisements that incorporated them from others that consisted entirely of text, often dense paragraphs that did not even deploy typography to allow for white space or other visual variations. When Benjamin Humphreys placed an advertisement for “Saw-Mill SAWS, Made in the NEATEST Manner” in the June 18, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, an image of a saw made it all the more noticeable to readers.  Unlike the stock images that belonged to the printer, Humphreys had to commission this woodcut.  Tied directly to his business, it could not be used elsewhere in the newspaper, especially since Humphreys had his name included in the image.  Even among advertisers who arranged for unique images to accompany their newspaper notices, relatively few incorporated their names into the woodcuts.

Jun 18 - 6:18:1770 Bartram Detail Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (June 18, 1770).

The image in another advertisement in the same issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle just happened to do so.  For nearly three years, George Bartram had occasionally published advertisements that included a depiction of his “sign of the NAKED BOY,” complete with his name.  Much more ornate than Humphrey’s woodcut of a saw, Bartram’s woodcut featured a naked child inspecting a roll of cloth in a cartouche in the center, flanked by Bartram’s merchandise on either side.  Garments on rolls of cloth appeared above the name “GEORGE” on the left and a glove draped over more rolls of cloth appeared above the name “BARTRAM” on the right.  The advertising copy changed from advertisement to advertisement over the years, but Bartram’s woodcut remained consistent in identifying his business to readers.

Although clustered in a single issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, these woodcuts were exceptional visual images that not only represented particular businesses but also incorporated the names of the advertisers.  Humphreys and Bartram experimented with creating logos that combined words and images to make them all the more distinctive and memorable for prospective customers.

May 29

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

May 29 - 5:26:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 26, 1768).

“Said Humphreys makes, and has now on Hand, a large Quantity of good Sickles, Scythes.”

Stephen Paschall and Benjamin Humphreys jointly placed an advertisement in the May 26, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. In it, they promoted several items they both manufactured, including “Screws for Clothiers, Timber-Carriages, Tobacconists, [and] Packing” and “Iron Work for Grist-Mills, Saw-Mills, and Fulling-Mills.” In addition, Paschall announced that he made and sold bellows for blacksmith forges on Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Similarly, Humphreys marketed sickles, scythes, and other cutlery that he made and sold at the corner of Ninth and Market Streets.

Their advertisement included a visual image uniquely associated with Humphreys’s business: a woodcut of a sickle mounted on a handle suspended from a scythe blade. This image likely approximated a sign that marked Humphreys’s workshop. That would explain why a single link connected the two blades. Each blade also bore the name HUMPHREYS, identifying the artisan but also marking his place of business. Humphreys did not advise prospective customers that his workshop was located at the Sign of the Scythe and Sickle, but given that he expressed concern that his “Distance from Market” might “discourage his Friends, and others” from visiting his shop he may have considered it most important to list the cross streets by name and allow the woodcut to speak for itself in terms of the sign that marked his location. Relatively few American shop signs that predate the Revolution survive, but woodcuts that accompanied newspaper advertisements suggest some of the marketing images colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of cities and towns.

For modern researchers, this image raises a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of consulting digital surrogates to the exclusion of original sources. I downloaded a PDF of the entire May 26, 1768, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. As the image above reveals, the photography and remediation of the original source make it difficult to discern that the name HUMPHREYS does indeed appear on the blades. This was a detail I overlooked the first time I read the advertisement and only noticed when I gave the woodcut additional scrutiny. To determine whether I had mistaken the shading of the blades with a depiction of the artisan’s name, I visited the American Antiquarian Society to examine an original issue. The photograph below confirms that the name HUMPHREYS appears quite legibly, much more so than the digital surrogate suggests. In many ways, working with microfilm and digital images can be much more efficient than consulting originals. Both formats provide greater access while also preserving original documents. But they must be used judiciously. Sometimes examining the original yields information otherwise unavailable, as was the case with Benjamin Humphrey’s woodcut in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

May 29 - 5:26:1768 Detail AAS Pennsylvania Gazette
Detail of Paschall and Humphreys Advertisement in May 26, 1768 edition of Pennsylvania Gazette. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.