January 10

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

Providence Gazette (January 10, 1767).

“A FINE large CAMERA OBSCURA, which shuts up in the form of a book: Also the Compleat Florist.”

Although there is no way to know for certain, this advertisement seems to offer secondhand goods. The seller did not include his or her name, but instead instructed anyone interested in purchasing a camera obscura and a copy of The Compleat Florist to “Inquire at the Printing-Office, in Providence.”

This advertisement presents a bit of a puzzle since the description of the book deviates from the features most commonly associated with its contents, assuming that this was the combined volume printed in London for J. Duke in 1747. Most descriptions of The Compleat Florist focus primarily on the images contained in it. Consider, for instance, this short description from the Luxuriant Nature Smiling Round… exhibition that first appeared in the Rare Book Room of Canady Library at Bryn Mawr College:

“This gardening guide by an anonymous author consists of 100 engraved and hand-colored plates. Produced for popular consumption, this collection of plants reflects the tastes current in Great Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. The book consists entirely of pictures of flowering plants, accompanied by brief notes with advice on cultivation. Although the book was mass-produced, few copies survived rough handling by avid gardeners.”

Title page for The Compleat Florist (London: Printed for J. Duke, 1747).  Courtesy Bryn Mawr College.

Today’s advertisement, however, mentions the “extensive and curious collection of the most beautiful flowers” briefly, but elaborates in greater detail on the book’s “short introduction to drawing, and directions for mixing and using of colours, with several proper and easy examples.” Was this the same Compleat Florist? Librarians and rare book dealers do not mention the “introduction to drawing” but instead exclusively discuss the engraved images. They also tend to specify that gardeners considered The Compleat Florist a valuable resource and consulted it regularly.

Perhaps the advertiser did some gardening, but the notice in the Providence Gazette seemed to be aimed at hobbyists who enjoyed drawing and painting, especially considering the inclusion of the camera obscura. Such “pinhole cameras” had been used to aid drawing and painting for nearly a century by the time today’s advertisement was published. Joshua Reynolds, the prominent British portrait painter and first president of the Royal Academy, famously owned his own camera obscura that collapsed to look like a book when not in use.

There may be an important lesson here concerning the uses of consumer goods. The author and printer may have originally intended that readers purchase The Compleat Florist to admire its images of flowers and to consult when gardening. Some consumers, however, may have adopted their own uses for the book, including at least one colonist interested in painting flora in Providence in the 1760s.