April 27

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

Apr 27 - 4:27:1767 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (April 27, 1767).

“I will work for the following prices.”

Charles Oliver Bruff, “Gold-smith and Jeweler,” was in a price war with “three different Silver-smiths” in New York. Bruff frequently advertised in the New-York Mercury, but he departed from his usual description of his merchandise and promises to provide good service to “the Gentlemen and Ladies of this city and country” to address a problem created by some of his competitors. He accused those “three different Silver-smiths” of undervaluing his work, making it seem as though he charged unreasonable prices.

To protect his reputation and avoid losing more business to his unscrupulous competitors, Bruff went to the rather extraordinary measure of listing his prices for the entire community to see, assess for themselves, and compare to the rates charged by other “Gentlemen of the trade.” He specified nine prices, including “For making a silver tankard, 3s. per ounce,” and “For making a soop-spoon, 20s.”

Bruff may not have been the innocent victim that he tried to portray himself. His initial prices may have been inflated, but he could not admit to that in his advertisement. Instead, he offered an alternate narrative that depicted his competitors as lacking in sound judgment when it came to assessing the quality of his work and the value of products in their trade more generally. At the same time, he lowered his own prices, seemingly forced to do so in order to continue to attract clients. As a result, new customers would receive quite a bargain since Bruff did not wish to “hurt myself for others” by charging full value for his workmanship only to be undercut by competitors. He concluded his advertisement by stating definitively that he would “work as cheap as any in this city.” Even if Bruff had overcharged in the past, intentionally or not, potential patrons need not worry about that happening if they now chose to deal with him.

March 4

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

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

Mar 4 - 3:3:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (March 3, 1766).

“Making or mending any Kind of Diamond or enameled Work.”

Charles Oliver Bruff’s advertisement offers a wide variety of popular jewelry to be made and mended. Jewelry made between 1714 and 1847 comes from the Georgian Era. It is important to note that jewelry was not made the same way it is today. According to the International Gem Society, the process was far more labor-intensive. Gold and metal ingots needed to be rolled into thin sheets before they could be formed into the popular styles of the time.

Bruff chose to market a variety of popular merchandise, but one that is specifically interesting is pinchbeck buckles. Pinchbeck was a material commonly used that looks like gold but is much more affordable. Oliver’s choice to advertise this along with more expensive jewelry is interesting because it shows that he was trying to appeal to people of many different economic backgrounds. Jewelry was primarily a luxury of the elite society, but Oliver’s advertisement alludes to the inclusion of customers from other economic statuses.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Of all the possible items in Bruff’s advertisement that Trevor chose to investigate, he selected pinchbeck buckles. That, in turn, led me to a fascinating discovery when I clicked the hyperlink to a dictionary definition of “pinchbeck” that he included to accompany his commentary for today. The first entry refers explicitly to “the Jewellery Way” (as Bruff put it): “an alloy of copper and zinc used especially to imitate gold in jewelry.”

A second entry, however, indicates that “pinchbeck” could also mean “something counterfeit or spurious.” It seems unlikely that Bruff intended to suggest that his buckles should be considered inferior in any way, but colonial consumers would have known that pinchbeck buckles were made of something other than gold (especially since Bruff promised to sell them “cheap by the dozen”).

A variety of scholars – including those who study consumer culture, material culture, manners, and reputation – have argued that assessing the dress and comportment of others became a cultural preoccupation in the eighteenth century. Especially as greater numbers of people of diverse statuses possessed an increasing array of goods as the consumer revolution progressed, colonists attempted to distinguish the truly genteel from those who merely simulated gentility. Colonists carefully observed each other to see if inner character matched an individual’s outward appearance.

In that context, pinchbeck buckles potentially presented a bit of a conundrum. What did it say about someone who wore accoutrements that looked like gold all while knowing that the appearance of the more costly metal misrepresented the true nature of the alloy that was actually used? Could that be interpreted as a reflection on one’s own character? Social mobility was fraught with such dilemmas in the eighteenth century.