What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“DIRECTIONS for making calcined or PEARL ASHES.”
Advertisements associated with the potash industry appeared quite regularly in colonial newspapers. Some advertisers wanted to buy it, offering a good price in exchange for potash. Others supplied some of the equipment, such as oversized kettles, necessary for producing potash. Although not necessarily directly involved in potash production, printers also published advertisements that indicated they stood to profit from it all the same. Some sold “Justices Blank Certificates” used in the packing and regulation of potash, while others peddled instruction manuals to those who wanted to participate in the industry or improve on their previous efforts.
Such was the case with a short pamphlet (less than twenty pages) devoted to “DIRECTIONS for making calcined or PEARL ASHES, As practised in Hungary, &c.” Samuel Hall, the printer of the Newport Mercury, sold the pamphlet at his shop “on the North Side of the Parade,” but the imprint on the pamphlet itself indicated that it was “Printed for and sold by JOHN MEIN, at the London Book-store” in Boston. Both printers (and quite likely others throughout New England that exchanged stock with Mein) looked to make a profit from indirect involvement in the potash trade through the sale of ancillary products.
Both the advertisement and the title page of the pamphlet underscored that it included “a Copper-Plate Drawing of a calcined Furnace.” This would have certainly increased the expense of producing the pamphlet and, ultimately, the cost to the customer, but such an investment could be readily justified. The accompanying image likely offered valuable insight into the text, making it more comprehensible. Art historian Nancy Siegel has argued that engraved images that accompanied eighteenth-century cookbooks were imperative in demonstrating the meaning of the text to readers. The same would have been true for an instruction manual detailing equipment and processes for producing potash, especially for readers not already well versed in the subject. After all, the directions in the pamphlet were “founded on the most extensive Knowledge of Pearl Ashes—a Knowledge acquired by long Practice, Experience and Success. The advertisement warned readers that this was “the only Means to establish Matters of Fact.” It concluded by jeering that “plausible Theories” were “little better than ingenious Amusements.”
In other words, both the text and the engraved copperplate drawing merited attention from anybody serious about potash production. Both were worth the expense.