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.