GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
In 2019 light is one of the most abundant resources that we have. Simply flip a switch and to illuminate an entire room with almost no effort. However, 250 years ago colonists needed to burn a candle to produce a small amount of light, accompanied by smoke and smell. Richard Smith published this advertisement for his sale of “Spermaceti Candles, by the quantity or single Box” on May 4, 1769. These spermaceti candles were created from the oils harvested from the heads of sperm whales. They were of much better quality than the typical tallow candle. The reason that spermaceti candles were much more desirable than others was that they would burn brighter, produce less odor, and little smoke. This was particularly important to people striving for a cleaner source of light. These candles were also far superior during the warm summer months because they were more resistant to heat. Unlike tallow candles, these high-quality candles would not bend and warp due to the heat and humidity. Because these candles were far superior to the typical tallow candle, they were very expensive and would typically be purchased by those who could afford the luxury. For more information, see Emily Irwin’s article on “The Spermaceti Candle and the American Whaling Industry.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Richard Smith sold spermaceti candles at his store in King Street in Boston, but he was not a chandler. The candles were among the many items, “an Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS,” that he sold at that location, though he did give them particular prominence in his advertisement in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. “Spermaceti Candles” served as a second headline, appearing in font the same size as Smith’s name.
While that may have been the result of design decisions made by the compositor, Smith certainly exercised control over the copy of the advertisement. He chose to highlight various aspects of the candles and merely make a nod to his other wares. For instance, he allowed customers to purchase as many or as few candles as they needed or could afford, offering them “by the Quantity or single Box.” More significantly, he offered assurances about the quality of the spermaceti candles he sold. Smith proclaimed that they were “Manufactured by Daniel Jeackes & Com. at Providence, warranted pure, and free from any Adulteration.” As Patrick notes, the materials for making spermaceti candles were rare compared to tallow or beeswax candles, which made them more expensive for consumers and introduced the possibility that chandlers had diluted the materials during the production process. To ward off any such suspicions, Smith named the manufacturers, Daniel Jeackes and Company, giving prospective customers the opportunity to assess their reputation for themselves. Even if readers were not already familiar with spermaceti candles produced by Jeackes and Company, Smith offered a warranty that they were “pure, and free from any Adulteration.” Presumably this was also a marketing strategy that Jeackes and Company deployed when they supplied Smith with the candles.
This sort of strategy was a common element of advertisements for spermaceti candles in eighteenth-century newspapers. On the same day that Smith’s advertisement ran in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, another advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti Candles” appeared in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. It simply stated that the candles were “Warranted pure,” acknowledging the concerns of consumers but not providing nearly as much detail. Smith provided more powerful reassurances by naming the chandlers and commenting on the purity of the candles at greater length. He made those qualities, rather than the candles themselves, the centerpiece of his advertisement.