January 9

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 9, 1772).

“Cutlery Ware.”

Chris Barone, a student in my Revolutionary America class in Fall 2021, selected this advertisement that Nathan Frazier placed in the January 9, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  It prompted a conversation about how the meanings of some words have shifted since the eighteenth century.  Frazier advertised “Cutlery Ware” among his “fresh Assortment of English and Scotch GOODS,” but that phrase did not mean knives, forks, and spoons to the shopkeeper or his prospective customers.

Instead, cutlery referred to “the art or trade of the cutler,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  That gave us a chance to discuss the cutler, “one who makes, deals in, or repairs knives and similar cutting utensils,” as a common occupation in the eighteenth century.  It also prompted us to explore the entry for “cutlery” in the Oxford English Dictionary in greater detail.  We learned that the word also refers to “articles made or sold by cutlers, as knives, scissors, etc.”  That definition included an example from 1787, the same period as the advertisement Chris selected.  For other examples, we looked to previous entries in the Adverts 250 Project.  We discovered several advertisements placed by cutlers that listed a variety of items they made, sold, and repaired.  Samuel Wheeler advertised “good scythes and sickles” in the Pennsylvania Gazette in June 1770.  Amos Atwell listed “Case Knives and Forks, Carving Knives and Forks, Pocket and Pen Knives of various Kinds, Razors, [and] Surgeons Instruments” in an advertisement for his “CUTLERY BUSINESS” in the Providence Gazette in 1771.  Bailey and Youle, “Cutlers from Sheffield,” informed the public that they “MAKE all sorts of surgeons instruments” and “grinds all sorts of knives, razors, shears, and scissors” in an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in March 1771.  A month later, Richard Sause ran a similar advertisement that included the same services and added “sword cutling.”  Bailey and Youle included an image depicting about a dozen cutlery items.  Sause again imitated his competitors with a similar image.

The Oxford English Dictionary also includes a definition for cutlery more familiar to modern readers: “knives, forks, spoons, etc., used for eating or serving food; a set of table utensils of this kind.”  That entry includes several examples, though the earliest dates from 1821, half a century after Frazier placed his advertisement.  A note also states that in earlier examples it is difficult to distinguish this meaning from “articles made or sold by cutlers.”  Frazier’s advertisement for “Cutlery Ware” demonstrated that colonizers easily spoke a language of consumption among themselves that requires some effort by historians to understand 250 years later.

March 4

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (March 4, 1771).

“All sorts of knives, razors, shears, and scissars.”

When Bailey and Youle, “Cutlers from Sheffield,” advertised in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in March 1771, a visual image distinguished their notice from others.  They devoted approximately one-third of the space in their advertisement to a woodcut that may have depicted the sign that marked the location of their shop.  A border contained their names and occupation as well as images of a razor, a knife, an awl, scissors, and a variety of other cutlery that they made and sold at their shop “NEAR THE Merchant’s COFFEE-HOUSE.”  That image represented an investment in their marketing efforts.  First, they had to commission a woodcut connected directly to their business.  Then, since newspaper printers charged by the amount of space advertisements filled rather than the number of words, they had to pay for the additional space required to include the woodcut.  That alone made their advertisement half again more expensive than if they had inserted only the copy with no image.

Was it worth the additional expense?  Bailey and Youle may have impressed prospective customers with their unique image.  The depictions of so many different kinds of cutlery underscored the range of choices in the list of merchandise that followed.  The woodcut almost certainly attracted notice and drew attention to their advertisement.  Consider its placement in the March 4, 1771, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the first issue that carried it.  Bailey and Youle’s advertisement ran on the third page in a standard issue created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  If readers perused the interior of the newspaper by holding the second and third pages open, Bailey and Youle’s woodcut would have been the only visual image they encountered among two pages of dense text in both news accounts and advertisements.  If they folded the pages over and viewed only one at a time, the woodcut in Bailey and Youle’s advertisement still would have been the only visual image visible.  Only three other images appeared elsewhere in that edition, one in the masthead as usual and two much smaller depictions of ships at sea that accompanied advertisements for passage and freight on the last page.

Bailey and Youle made appeals to consumer choice twice over in their advertisement.  Like many other purveyors of goods, they provided an extensive list of their merchandise.  In addition, however, their woodcut also cataloged the many cutlery items they offered for sale.  Text and image reinforced each other in making overtures to consumers.

April 2

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

Apr 2 - 4:2:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 2, 1768).

Extending Manufactures, appear to be the only Means of saving an injured and distressed Country.”

When Joseph Bucklin and Nicholas Clark placed an advertisement to “inform the Public, that they have set up the Cutler’s Business, in a Variety of Branches” in Providence in the spring of 1768 they imbued their products with political significance. In the wake of the Townshend Act going into effect the previous November, colonists from New England to Georgia continued to lament Parliament overstepping its authority and subjecting Americans to abuses that threatened to enslave them. Almost every newspaper published in the colonies reprinted a series of “Letters from Farmer in Pennsylvania,” twelve essays in which John Dickinson argued that Parliament could not impose taxes on the colonies for the purposes of raising revenue rather than regulating trade because the colonies were supposed to remain sovereign in their internal affairs. Starting in Boston and spreading far and wide, colonists pledged not to import goods from Britain but instead encourage domestic production to benefit the colonies both politically economically.

In that spirit, Bucklin and Clark proclaimed that “They have set up their Business in Confidence that they shall not want proper Encouragement, at a time when the setting up and extending Manufactures, appear to be the only Means of saving an injured and distressed Country.” The cutlers did not need to comment on the current political situation any more explicitly, especially since news and editorial items printed elsewhere in the same issue of the Providence Gazette provided the necessary context for prospective customers to understand their meaning. Even when considered independently of the other contents of any particular issue in which the advertisement appeared, Bucklin and Clark devised an advertisement that addressed discussions that had been taking place in print and in person for more than six months. Having done so, they expected “Proper Encouragement” for their efforts. They commenced their business for “the public Benefit” and called on “the Well-wishers to American Manufacturers” to purchase their wares. At the same time, they underscored the quality of their cutlery. Manufactured locally, their cutlery was not inferior to any imported from Britain or Ireland. Conscientious consumers, Bucklin and Clark argued, did not have to sacrifice quality when their politics guided their purchasing decisions.

February 19

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

Feb 19 - 2:19:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (February 19, 1768)

“Robert Bingham … Makes all Kinds of Surgeons Instruments for Amputation.”

In a notice in the New-London Gazette, Robert Bingham, a “CUTLER, from LONDON,” deployed many of the appeals most commonly included in newspaper advertisements during the eighteenth century. Artisans tended to promote the skills they had acquired in their trade, via training or experience or both. Without much elaboration, Bingham did mention his skill, noting that he completed his work “in the neatest manner.” Like many other advertisers, Bingham also established his connection to London, the center of the empire. For artisans, this often implied skill achieved through training superior to that available in the colonies. More often than not, advertisers of all sorts – whether merchants, shopkeepers, or artisans – incorporated appeals to price into their commercial notices. Bingham again followed the standard practice of the period, declaring that he performed his work at the “most reasonable rate.”

In general, Bingham wrote copy that prospective customers likely found reassuring, if not especially innovative or exciting. His appeals did not particularly distinguish his business from others, but neglecting to insert any of them into his advertisement would have distinguished him in the wrong ways. He needed to do more than merely announce his services. He needed his advertisement to demonstrate that he understood the expectations of potential clients.

Still, the composition of Bingham’s advertisement suggests that he may have attempted to make a more nuanced appeal to skill than just asserting that he made cutlery “in the neatest manner.” He worked in a shop in Lebanon, Connecticut. Residents of this small village and the surrounding area were much more likely to purchase “Table Knives and Forks, – Raisors [razors] – Scissars, – Penknives” than “Surgeons Instruments for Amputation and Trepanning; – also Surgeons Pocket Instruments.” Yet Bingham did not commence his advertisement with the items most likely to meet local demand. Instead, he first listed specialized instruments that required skill and precision in crafting, signaling his abilities to readers without making explicit reference to skill. Bingham may have considered the order he listed his wares a persuasive marketing strategy, one that showcased his skills more effectively than professing his abilities at great length.

March 9

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

Mar 9 - 3:7:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 7, 1766).

“Very neat double gilt pinch back buckles, white and yellow mettle ditto.”

Sometimes it can be a bit disorienting to read eighteenth-century advertisements. Some of the goods on offer seem unfamiliar to twenty-first-century readers (as is certainly the case in today’s advertisement), but the frequent use of the word “ditto” can also cause confusion.

  • “steel snuffers, common ditto”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen ditto”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case ditto”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring ditto”
  • “mens sturrips, womens ditto”

In the eighteenth century, “ditto” had the same meaning as it does today: the aforesaid, the above, the same. Accordingly, the examples above should be read as:

  • “steel snuffers, common snuffers”
  • “polished fire shovels and tongs, kitchen fire shovels and tongs”
  • “desk locks and brasses, book case locks and brasses”
  • “common stock locks, very fine 15 inch spring locks”
  • “mens sturrips, womens sturrips”

Eighteenth-century readers would have made the transition easily, but (if students in any early American course I have ever taught are representative of modern Americans) today’s readers do not speak the language of the eighteenth century, nor do they recognize all of its conventions for writing. This sometimes leads to confusion about what advertisements, as well as manuscripts and other kinds of printed documents, meant to communicate.

“Ditto.” Is that just a quaint way that Americans expressed themselves in the eighteenth century? It actually had a very practical use. Imagine Noah Parker writing out this advertisement before dropping it off at the printing office. Paper may have been in short supply, but his time and efforts were both precious to him as well. When writing with a quill pen, inserting “ditto” to replace longer words and phrases reduced the amount of writing that needed to be done.

It’s impossible to know how Parker originally composed this particular advertisement, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had used “do.” (itself an abbreviation for “ditto”) repeatedly, reducing the amount of writing he had to do with a quill pen significantly. (I’ve looked through enough account books to know that “do.” appeared repeatedly, sometimes as the most frequent word on a page.) The printer may have expanded “do.” to “ditto” at various places in the advertisement, though there are several examples of the much less common “dit.” standing in for “ditto.” It’s likely that both the printer and the advertiser made decisions about how to save time and space in the process of creating this advertisement.

BONUS: “&c. &c. &c.”

The advertisement ends with what appears to be a nonsensical collection of letters and symbols, at least to twenty-first-century readers. In the eighteenth century, however, writers and printers also had methods for abbreviating “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” (and others, and so forth, and so on). Instead of “etc.” they used the more economical “&c.” (I’m not certain when the transition from “&c.” to “etc.” took place, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the relative ease of typing the latter compared to the former on a QWERTY keyboard.)