May 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 13, 1773).

“Hand and Shop BILLS.”

At the bottom of the final page of each issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the colophon informed readers that they could purchase subscriptions from Isaiah Thomas at his printing office in Boston or from local agents in several other towns in the colony.  In addition, the colophon stated, “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in,” “PRINTING in its various Branches, performed in a neat Manner,” and “HAND BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.”  Thomas aimed to generate revenue from both notices in the newspaper and advertisements printed to distribute separately.

In the spring of 1773, the printer enhanced his efforts to encourage colonizers to purchase advertising.  He commenced with a newspaper notice that appeared as the first item at the top of the first column on the first page of the April 16 edition.  Thomas advised that “THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”  Furthermore, “Advertisements (sent in season) are inserted in a neat and conspicuous manner on the most reasonable terms.”  The remainder of the notice solicited subscriptions, though the printer’s comment that the newspaper “has met with very great encouragement from the public” also assured advertisers of its “extensive circulation” that made advertising a good investment.

Three weeks later, Thomas inserted another advertisement about advertising, this time for “Hand and Shop BILLS.”  Printers occasionally hawked handbills, as Thomas did in the colophon, but rarely did they advertiser shop bills.  Those billheads, the precursors to modern letterheads, included the name and location of the merchant, shopkeeper, or artisan.  They often featured a visual image or a brief advertisement describing the goods and services available at the shop or both.  Most of the sheet remained blank, leaving space to write in a list of purchases.  Billheads simultaneously served as both advertisements and receipts.

Thomas apparently sought to increase the amount of advertising produced at his shop.  He declared that he “furnished himself with an elegant assortment of LARGE, and other TYPES, for the purpose of printing in the best manner, SHOP and other BILLS.”  He acknowledged that the type he used for printing the newspapers was not always the best choice for freestanding advertisements like broadsides, handbills, and billheads.  Instead, Thomas acquired the necessary equipment for crafting the most effective advertisements.

He also gave his notice about “Hand and Shop BILLs” a privileged spot the first time it appeared, placing it after news from Boston dated May 5 and before news from Boston dated May 6.  Even readers who only skimmed or completely skipped over advertisements were likely to see it there.  His previous notice about advertising in the Massachusetts Spyran as the final item in the Postscript, the only advertisement in that supplement, reinforcing the printer’s efforts to market advertising.  As with other instances of advertising ephemera mentioned in newspaper notices, the “Hand and Shop BILLS” that Thomas promoted in the spring of 1773 testifies to a vibrant culture of advertising in early America, though most such items have not been collected and preserved in research libraries and historical societies.

January 22

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

Pennsylvania Chronicle (January 20, 1772).

“All sorts of Chymical and Galenical Medicines (truly prepared).”

When Townsend Speakman opened an apothecary shop on Market Street in Philadelphia in the early 1770s, he took to the pages of the Pennsylvania Chronicle to offer his services.  In an advertisement in the January 20, 1772, edition, he introduced himself as a “Chymist and Druggist, LATE FROM LONDON.”  Like many others who migrated across the Atlantic, he asserted his credentials as a means of establishing his reputation among prospective clients.  Speakman declared that he “served a regular apprenticeship to the business.”  In addition, he “had several years further experience therein, in a house of the first reputation in LONDON.”

That accrued additional benefits for his prospective clients beyond the expertise and experience the “Chymist and Druggist” gained during his apprenticeship and subsequent employment.  His connections to an apothecary shop “of the first reputation” meant that he could “procur[e] articles of the best quality” for the “most reasonable rates” for his customers.  He vowed to pass along the savings, promising to “sell on as low terms as any in this city.”  Speakman also emphasized quality elsewhere in his advertisement.  He assured readers that he sold “all sorts of Chymical and Galenical Medicines (truly prepared).”  That phrase suggested both his skill in compounding medications and the authenticity of the ingredients he used.  To underscore the point, Speakman pledged that “Family receipts [or remedies], and physical prescriptions, are carefully and correctly compounded.”  Furthermore, he carried “the best of Drugs [and] Patent Medicines.”

As a newcomer unknown to the prospective clients that he wished to engage, Speakman sought to convince readers that he merited their trust in preparing and providing medicines.  He emphasized both his formal training through an apprenticeship as well as his additional experience working in an apothecary shop “of the first reputation” in London.  He brought his expertise to Philadelphia, vowing to supply clients with “truly prepared” medicines of the best quality.  The apothecary achieved success in the Quaker City.  In the late 1780s, he supplemented his newspaper advertisements with an engraved billhead for writing receipts for customers.

Billhead, Townsend Speakman, 1789. Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

January 6

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (January 6, 1767).

“A Bill of – PHIPPARD, Clock and Watch-Maker, at POOL, inclosed in the Case.”

An unnamed advertiser alerted readers of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal that his “gilt Metal WATCH” had recently been stolen. The victim of the theft offered a two dollar reward (and “no Questions asked”) to anyone who delivered the watch to the printer. In addition, he offered a more significant reward “on Conviction of the Offender.”

In addition to demonstrating one means that consumer goods circulated in eighteenth-century America, this notice also reveals another form of marketing. To help readers identify the stolen watch, the advertiser noted that a “Bill” for “PHIPPARD, Clock and Watch-Maker, at POOL” was “inclosed in the Case.” Like other artisans, watchmakers sometimes marked their work with printed items. Cabinetmakers affixed paper labels, which often resembled trade cards, to furniture produced in their shops. Bookbinders pasted labels inside the covers of books they bound. Smiths packaged buckles and other adornments in boxes that had labels reminding customers who had crafted the items and where similar items were sold. Watchmakers also inserted watch papers to protect the glass faces of the watches they made.

From the description in the advertisements, it appears that the watchmaker, Phippard, did not necessarily include a watch paper (or, if he had, it had been misplaced or discarded), but instead resorted to some sort of label or small billhead intended to be stored with the commodity and its packaging. As a result, Phippard created an advertisement that his customer encountered regularly, long after the initial purchase had been completed. This operated as an eighteenth-century precursor to more intentional efforts to brand merchandise. Clock- and watchmakers made other efforts to permanently mark – or brand – their work, often engraving their names directly onto the items they created. Another advertisement in the same issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal indicated that readers could identify a lost watch by looking for the “Makers Name J. FINCIM” on the watch itself.

Eighteenth-century artisans marked their work out of pride, but they also did so as a means of establishing and maintaining their reputation for quality work and promoting further sales.

Bonus: Edward Pole’s Advertising Campaign

Yesterday evening I discovered that the American Antiquarian Society included a newspaper advertisement in its Instagram feed earlier in the day, a delightful surprise made even better by a generous reference to the Adverts 250 Project.  Please visit the AAS Instagram feed to see the advertisement and their commentary.

I was also excited because I recognized the advertiser, Edward Pole, a “Fishing-Tackle-Maker” who also operated a wholesale and retail grocery store in Philadelphia in the 1770s and 1780s.  Unlike most newspaper advertisements featured in the Adverts 250 Project so far, Pole’s advertisement (from fifteen years later, June 1781) included a woodcut to catch readers’ attention:  a striking image of a fish, certainly appropriate for an entrepreneur who peddled fishing tackle.  Woodcuts accompanying newspaper advertisements became more common during the last third of the eighteenth century.  Some advertisers, like Pole, used them as brands for their products and businesses.

Pole’s woodcut probably looked familiar to consumers in Philadelphia in 1781.  It appeared regularly in the Pennsylvania Packet (at least as early as May 1774), but that was not the only newspaper that included a woodcut of a fish with Pole’s commercial notices.  Pole placed advertisements for fishing tackle, including a very similar fish (this time with a decorative border), in the Freemen’s Journal in 1784.

Pole Newspaper Advert
Advertisement from the Freemen’s Journal (March 24, 1784).  Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

In addition,the savvy Edward Pole made use of multiple advertising media.  He distributed an engraved billhead for his receipts as early as the 1770s.  The billhead’s elaborate engraving featured a triptych logo in the upper left corner of the sheet, complete with rococo-style frames surrounding casks, crates, and scales on the left and right and the words “Edwd Pole’s GROCERY STORE Wholesale & Retail” in the center.  This billhead, with manuscript notations from 1771, is part of the Norris Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Sometime in the late 1770s or early 1780s, he also distributed engraved trade cards featuring a rectangular vignette of two gentlemen fishing in a stream above a description of the wares stocked in his shop.  Pole eventually resorted to broadsides (or, in modern terms, posters) for his business ventures.

Edward Pole Trade Card
Edward Pole’s Trace Card (ca. 1780).  Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

In addition to trade cards, billheads, and broadsides, Pole most prolifically advertised in several of Philadelphia’s newspapers, often distinguishing his advertisements from others on the page by including a woodcut of a fish, as we have seen.  Pole’s use of multiple media allowed him to publicize his wares widely.  Most advertisements relied exclusively on newspapers for their marketing, but Pole took an innovative approach by experimenting with other forms as he encouraged potential customers to visit his shop.