July 1

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

Jul 1 - 6:28:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 28, 1770).

“At the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron.”

Samuel Wheeler, a cutler, advised prospective clients that he “undertakes any kind of iron work that any business requires.”  In advertisement in the June 28, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he also listed a variety of items that he “makes and has for sale,” including “good scythes and sickles,” “steal stamps for carpenters or smiths,” “iron work for mills of any kind,” and “smiths work for houses.”  Wheeler listed two locations for customers to examine his merchandise and make purchases, his shop “at the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron” on Second Street and his house “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” in Church Alley.  Like many other artisans, Wheeler incorporated images of the items he made into the signs that marked his location.

Signs depicting scythes and sickles were a common sight in Philadelphia in 1700.  In the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, two other cutlers inserted advertisements that mentioned signs that included images of one or both tools.  James Hendricks made and sold sickles “at the sign of the Sickle” on Market Street.  Stephen Paschall also ran a shop on Market Street, where he made and sold a variety of cutlery “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle.”

These advertisements reveal both the variation in signs adopted by artisans who pursued the same occupation and the challenges they faced in identifying themselves with distinctive devices.  Hendricks chose a single item, the sickle, for his sign, while Wheeler multiplied the number of items, perhaps with the intention that the combination of scythe, sickle, and brand iron would be so distinctive that others were unlikely to adopt it.  That had not been the case with the sign that marked his home rather than his shop.  Wheeler and Paschall both mentioned signs that featured the scythe and sickle.  Other cutlers in the city may have also posted signs with this common imagery.  Signs helped to identify their workshops, but a sign alone was not necessarily sufficient to designate a business operated by a particular artisan.

June 10

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

Jun 10 - 6:7:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 7, 1770).

“SICKLES, ready prepared for the Harvest.”

As summer approached in 1770, James Hendricks announced to readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette that he had “ONE HUNDRED and Twenty DOZEN of SICKLES, ready prepared for the Harvest.”  Hendricks volunteered his location, “the Sign of the Sickle, the 4th Door above the Prison, in Market-street,” and made some of the standard appeals that colonial artisans incorporated into their advertisements.  He emphasized the skill that went into producing his wares, asserting that “these Sickles are carefully made.”  He made an appeal to price, declaring that the sickles “will be sold at the lowest Rates.”  He also highlighted the quality of the sickles, proclaiming that they were “ensured to be good.”  While Hendricks might have considered that a guarantee, he did not explicitly state that he would repair or replace defective items, a strategy sometimes adopted by artisans as a means of testifying to quality.

The most significant attribute, certainly the most visible, of Hendrick’s advertisement, however, may very well have been the woodcut depicting a sickle.  It accounted for half of the space that the advertisement occupied on the page.  Given that advertisers paid by the amount space rather than the number of words, including this visual image doubled the cost of the advertisement.  In addition, Hendricks commissioned the woodcut.  That expense more than doubled the cost of running his notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Yet this distinguished his advertisement from others that appeared on the same page and throughout the rest of the issue.  In the June 7 edition, only one other advertisement featured a visual image.  A woodcut of a ship at sea adorned an advertisement for a vessel preparing to sail for London.  The other advertisements consisted entirely of text, most of them dense paragraphs that did not have anywhere near the amount of white space that made Hendrick’s sickle especially noticeable in contrast.  While this woodcut may not seem elaborate to modern eyes, eighteenth-century readers could not have overlooked it when perusing the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Hendricks used the visual image to draw attention to the copy of his advertisement, the brief description of his wares and recitation of some of the most common marketing appeals.

July 16

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

Jul 16 - 7:16:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (July 16, 1768).

“They have set up the CUTLERS Business in Providence.”

When Joseph Bucklin and Nicholas Clark opened a new workshop they placed an advertisement to inform prospective customers that they had “set up the CUTLERS Business in Providence.” They called on the residents of the city and its environs to support their new endeavor, explaining the benefits to both consumers and the local economy. The workshop produced “all Sorts of Cutlers Ware used in this Country,” making it unnecessary to rely on imported goods. Indeed, Bucklin and Clark condemned the shoddy cutlery exported to the colonies, a state of affairs that they suggested readers already knew all too well: “When they consider how much this Country hath been abused by bad Wares sent hither for Sale, they are but the more encouraged in their Undertaking.”

In contrast, the workmen who labored in their shop made razors, scissors, knives of various sorts, medical instruments, and “many other Articles” that were “far exceeding in Quality any thing of the Kind imported from Great-Britain.” To that end, they had hired “two Workmen from Europe, who are compleat Masters in the Business” who could “grind and put in Order all the aforementioned Articles, in the best and most expeditiopus Manner.” Bucklin and Clark were so confident of the quality of their wares that they offered a guarantee. The partners pledged that “they will warrant them to be good,” but also promised that if in the instance of any of their products “proving defective” they “will receive them again.”

Bucklin and Clark concluded with an argument simultaneously commercial and political. “It is hoped,” they stated, “that when this Country labours under the greatest Embarrassments and Difficulties, in importing the Manufactures of Great-Britain, their Business will be encouraged, and their Work preferred to such as is imported, as the whole Cost will be saved to the Country.” Bucklin and Clark asserted that the superior quality of their cutlery was only one reason that potential customers should purchase it rather than imported wares. They also declared that consumers had an obligation to make responsible choices that had both commercial and political ramifications. The colonies suffered a trade imbalance with Great Britain; purchasing domestic manufactures helped to remedy that. In addition, passing over imported goods in favor of obtaining locally produced wares made a political statement in the wake of the Townshend Act and other abuses by Parliament. Bucklin and Clark underscored that seemingly mundane decisions about which knives to purchase actually had extensive repercussions.

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.

March 11

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

Mar 11 - 3:11:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (March 11, 1768).

The Cutler’s or Whitesmith’s business is still carried on at my shop, and in a much steadier and careful manner than usual.”

As spring approached in 1768, Benjamin Butler, a cutler, needed to do some damage control or risk losing business to his competitors. A journeyman employed in his workshop had tarnished Butler’s reputation by producing inferior goods, causing Butler to take out an advertisement in the New-London Gazette to explain the situation. He hoped to convince prospective customers to give his workshop another chance now that he had remedied the problem.

After announcing that “the Cutler’s or Whitesmith’s business is still carried on at my shop,” Butler declared that work currently undertaken in the shop was completed “in a much steadier and careful manner than usual.” Here he already acknowledged that quality had been lacking for some time, but he then provided an explanation. For several months he had turned over the operation of the shop “to a journeyman, that was great part of his time incapable of performing good work.” Butler did not pull any punches about the reason the journeyman produced shoddy work: “strong drink.” Having made this confession, the cutler petitioned prospective customers to wipe clean the slate. He had resumed doing the jobs that came into the workshop himself. That being the case, he assured “Those who will favour me with their custom” that they could “depend upon being served in the best manner.”

Butler addressed his advertisement to “the public” rather than his former customers. Although he may have contacted some of them individually to make amends, he wanted the entire community to know that he was aware of the problem in his workshop and had addressed it. After all, customers could spread news of their discontent via word of mouth. In case that had happened, Butler harnessed the power of print in his efforts to dispel any lasting harm to his image. By issuing a mea culpa in a newspaper advertisement distributed far and wide in the colony, he encouraged prospective customers not to dismiss his workshop when they had need of a cutler’s services in the future. In this case, Butler advertised not only to incite demand but also to rehabilitate the reputation associated with the goods that came out of his workshop.