June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:19:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (June 19, 1767).

“He proposes to open a DANCING SCHOOL.”

Peter Curtis wished to open a dancing school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and inserted an advertisement to that effect in the local newspaper. In the decade before the Revolution, dancing masters frequently advertised their services in newspapers published in the largest port cities, especially Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. Fewer of them, however, placed notices proposing to open schools or teach private lessons in smaller towns. Curtis’s advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette was rather out of the ordinary.

Still, Curtis must have suspected that he could cultivate a market for his skills in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. After all, the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” he addressed in his advertisement participated in the same consumer culture as their counterparts in major port cities. Many colonists adopted various consumption practices – outfitting themselves in the latest styles and displaying fashionable furnishings and housewares – to demonstrate they belonged among the ranks of the genteel. Yet possessions alone did not guarantee that others would acknowledge the gentility of those who acquired them. Personal comportment became a measure for distinguishing the truly genteel from crass pretenders who merely made purchases. Manners, conversation, and dancing, among other pursuits, all played a role. Dancing well, completing the latest steps with grace while interacting easily with others in attendance at social gatherings, testified to an individual’s inner refinement that could not be counterfeited by wearing the right sorts of apparel and adornments. To that end, Curtis pledged to teach his pupils “in the most polite and genteel Manner.”

The colonial gentry in the major port cities availed themselves of lessons from dancing masters because they wished to assert that they were as cosmopolitan as their cousins in London. Other residents sought social mobility; they identified dancing as a means of demonstrating their own refinement matched their elite neighnors. For both, anxiety provided motivation. Curtis’s advertisement suggests that interest in dancing as a means of exhibiting refinement was not limited to urban ports in early America. Instead, with the help of advertisements to incite demand, it filtered out to smaller cities, like Portsmouth, and beyond. Curtis solicited customers “within Twenty Miles,” pledging to visit their homes for private lessons. He believed that some residents in the countryside, especially the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” considered the local elite and who wanted to safeguard that position, could be convinced that they desired to become as cosmopolitan and refined as the better sorts in colonial cities.

August 19

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

Aug 19 - 8:18:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (August 18, 1766).

“DANCING IS Taught by the Subscriber, in a genteel and easy Method.”

John Trotter and other dancing masters regularly advertised their services in colonial America’s largest urban ports in the decade before the Revolution, hoping to catch the attention of the elite as well as middling folks aspiring to join the ranks of the better sorts. Their prospective pupils may have resided in distant outposts of the British Empire like New York and Philadelphia, but those colonists strived to achieve the same cosmopolitanism as metropolitan London. Learning to dance or to speak French or (for men) to fence were considered marks of gentility, evidence that the colonial elite understood and achieved sophistication in their own right despite the distance that separated them from the centers of fashion, culture, and commerce in the Europe.

Trotter’s advertisement was relatively spared compared to the details included in notices placed by other dancing masters. He did not explicitly play on the anxieties of his potential customers in the same manner as some of his competitors (warning, for instance, that if readers did not learn the newest and most fashionable steps that they would be publicly embarrassed at social gatherings), but he may not have considered it necessary to be quite so heavy-handed. He may have assumed from the discourses surrounding him, both in conversation and in print, that the customers he wished to attract already experienced the sort of anxiety about their social position and identity that would prompt them to engage the services of a dancing master.

Trotter did offer his services to both “Gentlemen and Ladies.” He did so at two locations, “his House in Chaple-Street, next Door to the Play-House, and at Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.” Being able to take lessons at Mrs. Demot’s may have been especially important for female pupils. Dancing involved close contact, a certain level of intimacy that could be misconstrued or the cause of gossip that could call into question someone’s character as well as damage reputations, especially if those lessons took place within the privacy of Trotter’s house. Male students might be willing to meet him there, but it’s likely that women preferred to have their lessons at Mrs. Demot’s where they would have a female chaperone. Given the necessity of a reputation for good character required to pursue his occupation, Trotter may also have preferred that female students had their lessons at “Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.”

July 22

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

Jul 22 - 7:21:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (July 21, 1766).

Mary Cowley was the subject of some gossip by “Envious or Prejudiced” residents of Newport. She placed this advertisement in part to promote her business enterprises and in part to set the record straight when it came to some false reports she had heard.

Cowley was a busy woman, which likely brought her under more scrutiny than some of her neighbors and made her a target of “Envious or Prejudiced” gossip. She pursued two occupations, proprietress of a house of entertainment and dancing instructor. Both of these may have made other colonists suspicious of her, especially if she was unmarried or widowed and without a male relative to oversee her activities and interactions with patrons who visited her at “the House near the Entrance of Mr. Dyer’s Grove” or her pupils for the dancing lessons she provided at her own house. Male dancing masters frequently inserted reassuring words in their advertisements to convince potential students and the general public of their propriety, which was especially important given the close physical contact with students inherent in dancing lessons. Cowley was also vulnerable to such suspicions, especially if she offered lessons in the absence of a patriarch to chaperone her. She did venture to address such concerns, but only pledged to “give Satisfaction in every Branch of my Undertaking.”

Entertaining “none but the genteeler Sort” (which may have entailed serving food and beverages and overseeing polite conversation) appears to have been a relatively new endeavor for Cowley. Some may have assumed that it would so distract her from teaching dancing that she would cease meeting with students, but she had “no Thoughts of giving up that Business.”

Unlike many other female advertisers who assured potential customers and the general public that they behaved in appropriately feminine fashion even though they operated businesses of their own and inserted their voice in the public prints to attract business, Mary Cowley took a much more assertive tone. She answered gossip that circulated beyond the newspaper and concluded by thanking “every Well wisher of their humble Servant” for the “due Encouragement” they would bestow upon her.