April 25

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

Apr 25 - 4:25:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (April 25, 1768).

“John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree.”

In the spring of 1768 Charles Dunbar, a gardener, placed an advertisement in the Newport Mercuryto announce that he sold “a Quantity of choice good Garden Seeds.”  Customers could purchase “Early Charlton Peas,” “fine Madeira Onion,” “double curled Parsley,” and a variety of other seeds directly from Dunbar or from “Gilbert Stewart, the North Corner of Banister’s Row” or “John Stevens, near Liberty-Tree,” and “Caleb Earle at the upper end of the Town.”

Dunbar’s advertisement testifies to colonial understandings of urban geography and how to navigate cities, especially smaller ones.  Residences and businesses did not have standardized street numbers in the 1760s. Some of the largest American cities would institute such a system in the final decade of the century, but on the eve of the Revolution colonists relied on a variety of other means for identifying locations.  Sometimes indicating just the street or an intersection gave sufficient direction, such as “North Corner of Banister’s Row.”  Sometimes the descriptions were even more vague, such as “upper end of the Town.” Especially in towns and smaller cities, neither residents nor visitors needed much more information to locate residences and businesses.  Colonists also noted the proximity of shop signs.  In another advertisement in the same issue of the Newport Mercury, Thomas Green listed his location as “the Sign of the Roe Buck in Banister’s Row.” Advertisements from other newspapers printed throughout the colonies in the 1760s suggest that residents of Newport likely used Green’s sign as a marker to identify other locations next door to his shop or across the street or three doors down.  Although associated with particular businesses, shop signs served a purpose other than merely branding the enterprises of their proprietors.

In that regard, shop signs operated as landmarks, another common method for indicating location … and some landmarks communicated more than just location.  Dunbar indicated that prospective customers could find his associate John Stevens “near Liberty-Tree,” a landmark that could not be separated from its political symbolism even as the advertiser used it to facilitate commerce.  As a result, politics infused Dunbar’s advertisement, prompting readers to consider more than just their gardens as they contemplated which seeds to purchase and plant.  Dunbar’s notice was not an isolated incident.  In the wake of both the Stamp Act and, later, the Townshend Act, colonists designated Liberty Trees and quickly incorporated the symbolism into their understanding of urban landscapes.  Advertisers in Boston most frequently invoked the city’s Liberty Tree as a landmark to aid prospective customers in finding their businesses, but Dunbar’s notice demonstrates that advertisers in other cities adopted the same strategy.  Some advertisers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, took similar steps when they stated their location in relation to “Liberty-Bridge.” Even if advertisers did not actively endorse particular political positions, their use of these landmarks demonstrates how quickly residents of their cities integrated symbols of resistance into their points of reference for navigating urban centers.

May 10

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

May 10 - 5:7:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (May 7, 1767).

“KEARNY and GILBERT, At the sign of the Snuff Bottle, and their names over the store door.”

Newspaper advertisements from the period suggest visual elements of marketing erected in eighteenth-century cities and villages. Residents and visitors alike encountered an array of shop signs that retailers used to identify their businesses. Such was the case in the first issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette published in May 1767. Although their signs have been lost to time, several advertisers included descriptions of them alongside other directions intended to guide customers to their shops.

Nathaniel Tweedy, a druggist, announced that he could he sold medicines “At the Golden Eagle, in Market-street, near the Court-house.” Dyers Joseph Allardyce and Company practiced their trade “at the Sign of the Blue Hand, in Race-street, between Front and Second Streets.” Edward Penington, an attorney, advertised a real estate auction to be held “at the house of John Biddle, at the sign of the Indian King, in Market-street.” William Dawson, a cutler, not only stated that he made a various kinds of knives and other implements “At the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” but also included a woodcut depicting those instruments suspended from a signpost. Each of these, especially Dawson’s advertisement, hints at the rich visual cityscape of marketing in Philadelphia in the decade before the Revolution.

In many instances, such signs provided the sole means of identifying a shop or tavern, but other advertisers stated that they also labeled their places of business with their own names. Kearny and Gilbert, for instance, stocked an array of merchandise “At the sign of the Snuff Bottle … in Water Street.” To alleviate any potential confusion, customers could also look for “their names over the store door.” George Frederick Boyer, one of Dawson’s competitors in the cutlery business, displayed “a Sign in Front-street, and another in Water-street, with his Name thereon, and on which are painted Swords, Knives, Lancets, Razors, and Grinding Tools.”

How often did eighteenth-century shopkeepers, artisans, and other entrepreneurs label their locations with their own names or include them on their fanciful signs? Did most signs provide visual identification exclusively? Or did they also tend to incorporate at least a minimal amount of text, even if just the name of the proprietor? In the absence of devices like the Golden Eagle or the Blue Hand, did others at least post placards with their names so potential customers knew they had arrived at the correct destination? Or did they assume the extensive directions provided in advertisements sufficed?

I do not have satisfactory answers to these questions, but they remind me that the history of advertising in eighteenth-century America requires research along multiple trajectories, utilizing multiple sorts of sources. Newspaper notices and other printed ephemera (magazine wrappers, broadsides, trade cards, catalogs) tell much of the story, but material culture (such as shop signs or packaging materials, both more likely in museum collections rather than archives) reveals other important aspects of how marketing worked in early America.

March 16

GUEST CURATOR: Daniel McDermott

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

Mar 16 - 3:16:1767 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (March 16, 1767).

“Baizes, Duffels, Shalloons, Tammies, Calimancoes.”

William Cornell placed this advertisement for the array of textiles he sold. By today’s perspective the list seems foreign. However, in colonial America any person reading this advertisement would have known each material, including what style, how expensive, and common uses.

One textile on the list that may seem unfamiliar is baize. The Oxford English Dictionary describes baize as “A coarse woollen stuff, having a long nap, now used chiefly for linings, coverings, curtains, etc., in warmer countries for articles of clothing.” The OED also states it was used for shirts and petticoats. Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, and refered to a “Green Baize Gown,” making a recommendation to keep him warm during the cold nights: “I would recommend to you the Green Baize Gown, and if that will not answer, You recollect the Bear Skin.” This suggests baize could be heavy enough to be used for warmth during cold winter nights, just as warm as a “Bear Skin.” (Today, baize is most famously used to cover pool tables.)

Tammies were another textile Cornell sold that may seem unfamiliar. According to the Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820, tammy is a lightweight fabric, but because of its simple weaving the material is also strong. Due to its durability but light weight it was utilized for linings, children’s garments, or curtains. Tammy was also often dyed yellow, a color that quickly faded when exposed to light. Yellow tammy may have been chosen for linings that would have been less exposed and thus less likely to fade.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

When Daniel and I met to discuss William Cornell’s advertisement, we considered several aspects to examine in greater detail. Daniel ultimately opted to investigate some of the unfamiliar textiles, but during the research and writing process he also contemplated what this advertisement told us about colonists’ understanding of urban geography and how to navigate port cities.

In an era before standardized street numbers and addresses, colonists relied on a variety of landmarks to give directions. Advertisers frequently assumed that potential customers, especially in towns and smaller cities, were familiar with both local places and people. For instance, Cornell offered nothing by way of directions except noting that his shop was “Adjoining to Captain Robert Stoddard’s.” Apparently Stoddard was sufficiently known among residents of the port city that Cornell considered this sufficient for directing potential customers to his own business.

Some advertisers relied on their names alone, neglecting to offer any other sort of directions. Such was the case for Samuel Sanford (who advertised “A few Puncheons of Jamaica Rum”), Gideon Wanton, Jr. (who carried “Ticklenburgs [and] Osnaburgs,” textiles that did not appear in Cornell’s notice), and Joseph West (who sold “A Quantity of dry Cod Fish”).

Others provided a street name, a landmark, or a combination of the two to aid potential customers in locating them. John Hadwen, for instance, peddled his wares “At his Shop in Thames Street,” while Napthali Hart, Jr. sold a similar array of goods “At his Store on Mr. GEORGE GIBBS’s Wharf.” George Cornell maintained “Batchelor’s Hall,” presumably a boardinghouse, “IN Mill-Street, near the Ferry Wharf.”

Two other advertisers offered more complex directions. Christopher Smieller, a baker, announced that he “has removed from Mr. William Gyles’s Bakehouse, to that of Mr. Joseph Tillinghast.” Francis Skinner, a bookbinder, provided the most complicated – or perhaps the most exact – set of directions. Customers could find him “at his House the third below Trinity Church, on the East Side of the Street leading to the Neck.”

Regardless of how many or how few words any of these advertisers used, each expected readers and potential customers could make their way to their respective businesses based on the information they provided. Even the largest American cities were not yet so large in the 1760s to necessitate street numbers and standardized addresses to facilitate commerce. That changed by the end of the eighteenth century: advertisements increasingly included street numbers and a new kind of publication, the city directory, listed standardized addresses for residences and businesses alike. Both innovations transformed how early Americans, both locals and visitors, thought about navigating city streets.

July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (July 28, 1766).

“Daniel Jones INFORMS his Customers and others … that he has Removed … to a Corner Shop.”

Like many shopkeepers and other advertisers, Daniel Jones used his advertisements to communicate with different groups of readers: “his Customers and others,” those who had previously purchased his wares and those that he hoped to entice to visit his shop as new patrons.

In order for customers of all sorts to buy his merchandise, they first needed to know where to find Jones. He opened his advertisement by announcing that he had recently moved “to a Corner Shop” (a location that likely increased the foot traffic moving past his door and window). In an age before standardized street numbers, he listed his location as “the Easterly side of Newbury-Street,” sufficient directions to find the shop. To further aid former customers familiar with his previous location, however, he added that his new shop was “situated about three Rods to the Southward of that he Removed from.”

Such directions may have also been helpful to readers who had not previously made purchases from Jones. Even if they had not visited his shop, many likely knew where it was (or had been). Boston was, after all, a fairly compact city despite being a busy port. Customers who had not been to the Jones’s previous location may have also been intrigued to check out his “Corner Shop (which was lately improved by Capt. John Smith).” Even if the list of goods for sale did not draw them in, curious readers may have wanted to check out what kinds of improvements had been made to the shop itself.

In addition, Jones also addressed readers “both in Town and Country.” For former customers who lived outside Boston yet visited his shop when they came into town, an announcement about the new location and where it was located relative to his previous establishment was imperative. Jones did not want to risk disrupting his relationship with existing customers by having them arrive at a location he no longer maintained and not know how to find him. Especially if another shopkeeper set up business in Jones’ former location, he wanted former customers to know that he still kept shop in the same neighborhood.