March 28

GUEST CURATOR: Evan Sutherland

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

Mar 28 - 3:27:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 27, 1767).

“CROWN Coffee-House.”

According to Colonial Williamsburg, coffeehouses in the eighteenth century were “information centers and forums for debate and discussion.” Coffeehouses were places where people had conversations with others. Most coffeehouses were not limited to serving just coffee, but provided tea and chocolate as well. Some coffeehouses served alcoholic drinks as well, including the “ALE, PUNCH, WINE, &c.” at Isaac Williams’s Crown Coffeehouse. Coffeehouses that did not serve alcoholic drinks sometimes struggled to compete with those that did. Coffee, states Steven Topik, was often dismissed as an unnecessary luxury.



Isaac Williams issued a challenge to the readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Rather than simply announce that he stocked and served “the best of LIQUORS” for his patrons at the Crown Coffeehouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he dared them to “be so kind as to call and judge for themselves, whether his ALE, PUNCH, WINE, &c. is not as good as at other public Houses.” Advertisers in the eighteenth century, like their counterparts today, engaged in a complicated dance with potential customers. They made claims that they wanted readers to believe, often offering assurances of their validity and trustworthiness, but they also expected potential customers to greet their appeals with some skepticism. Williams acknowledged as much, insisting that he “would not have them take his Word.” Instead, he craftily invited comparisons with other establishments. Readers could not make such comparisons, however, unless they actually became customers and sampled the offerings at the Crown on Queen Street.

Once he got them through the doors, Williams promised a variety of amenities in addition to the “best of Liquors.” In addition to the quality of the beverages, “Gentlemen” experienced a refined atmosphere that included “large and small Entertainment, provided in the most genteel manner.” Such entertainment may have included performances by any of the variety of itinerants that Peter Benes examines his recent book, For a Short Time Only: Itinerants and the Resurgence of Popular Culture in Early America. Musicians, singers, magic lanternists, puppeteers, actors, and conjurers all performed in American taverns and coffeehouses throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition, the advertisement indicated that Williams likely completed renovations to make his coffeehouse a comfortable space for men to gather, drink, gossip, conduct business, discuss politics and current events, watch performers, and exchange information. To that end, he invested “considerable Expence … in making his House convenient” for the entertainment of his patrons.

From the liquor, coffee, and food to entertainment, furnishings, and service, Isaac Williams described an atmosphere that could only be truly appreciated by experiencing it. He prompted readers to imagine themselves drinking and socializing at the Queen, making it more likely that some would accept his challenge to visit and “judge for themselves” whether his coffeehouse compared favorably to other public houses.

September 20

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

Providence Gazette (September 20, 1766).

“To be RUN … by any Horse, Mare, or Gelding.”

Yesterday’s advertisement promoted a lottery for “SUNDRY Millinery Goods” at Joseph Calvert’s vendue house in Williamsburg. After weighing the risks and taking a chance, participants acquired an assortment of goods that they could keep for their own use or resell to others, further extending networks of commerce and distribution of goods in the colonies.

Today’s advertisement also invited readers to take a chance and perhaps win a prize, “a good pinchbeck WATCH, valued at Sixteen Dollars” awarded to the owner of “any Horse, Mare, or Gelding, in the County of Providence” that won a race to be held a little over a week later. Unlike the advertisement for Calvert’s lottery sale, this notice did not – and could not – indicate participants’ odds of winning the prize. It all depended on which horses (and how) many entered. The sponsors required that each entrant “pay one Dollar, upon entering his Horse,” presumably hoping to attract more than enough to balance the value of the watch to be given as the prize.

During the second half of the eighteenth century advertisements for goods and services increasingly placed consumption within a culture of entertainment, especially for those with sufficient wealth and leisure. Although this advertisement did not sell any particular merchandise or services, it did inform colonists of opportunities to be entertained. Those who owned fast horses could participate, but many others could also gather in Cranston to watch the run. The race and anticipation of which horse would win the prize for its owner offered the most excitement, but the entire event offered an entertaining experience, an opportunity to socialize with others and to see and be seen before and after the horses and riders competed. Anyone hoping to win the pinchbeck watch was most likely attired in the sorts of fashionable clothing and accouterments advertised elsewhere in the same issue of the newspaper. Gathering for this event allowed for consumption to become even more conspicuous.

September 18

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (September 18, 1766).

“Those gentlemen and ladies that incline to take the country air … may depend upon having good usage.”

Residents of Philadelphia and other urban centers engaged in an increasing number of leisure activities during the eighteenth century. Just as consumer culture dramatically expanded during the period, so did the sorts of activities that those with time and money could pursue. Dancing and fencing masters tutored students of all ages. Men and women met for meals or tea at houses of entertainment, establishments that often tried to draw in patrons with musicians or fireworks. Some proprietors cultivated gardens for visitors to explore. Others promoted their own hospitality and the conversations they facilitated as hosts and hostesses.

John Reser, who earned part of his living “making saddles and collars,” offered another option to “gentlemen and ladies” who had leisure time and looked to be entertained in new and novel ways. On Tuesdays and Fridays he sponsored an excursion along the “Old York road” from Philadelphia to his house “at the sign of the King of Prussia, in Miles-Town.” Reser promoted several aspects of this excursion, including traveling through “a pleasant Part of the country” that looked much different from the point of departure at “the corner of Second and Arch-streets” in Philadelphia. He promised to serve them well as they “take the country air.” Even the means of travel was intended to be part of the experience: “a light red covered stage wagon, completely finished.” It appears that Reser may have been attempting to make sure residents in and around Philadelphia would be sure to recognize this conveyance, giving his enterprise more visibility and prestige.

Joining this excursion meant committing some time for the fourteen-mile round trip, restricting the number of potential patrons. Although Reser does not explicitly state that he served food and drink at “his house, at the sign of the King of Prussia,” other sources indicate that he was issued a license to operate a tavern in Bristol Township on August 10, 1765. Sponsoring excursions for residents of Philadelphia “to take the country air” twice a week may have been a means of augmenting the business at his tavern.

John Reser’s excursions from Philadelphia into the countryside were part of a growing selection of leisure activities that gained popularity in the second half of the eighteenth century, heralding the rise of the tourism industry.