February 10

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

Pennsylvania Chronicle (February 10, 1772).

“ENGINES of all sorts for extinguishing of fire.”

Richard Mason constructed and sold “ENGINES of all sorts for extinguishing of fire” at his workshop in Philadelphia in the early 1770s.  In an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, he advised the public that he designed and built his engines “to answer every purpose for which they are calculated superior to those that are imported from London.”  Yet he did not expect readers simply to take his word for it.  Instead, he confided that “a very recent instance of the truth of their superiority hath been shewn to several persons well skilled in the principles of mechanic powers, who have given their approbation of them.”

To that end, Mason declared, “It hath been his chief aim to reduce friction as much as possible in these useful machines, in order thereby to make them as beneficial as possible towards the preservation of the persons and their properties.”  Reducing friction mattered because colonizers pumped these engines by hand after rolling them to the location of a fire.  An image that accompanied Mason’s advertisement depicted an engine shooting a stream of water at an unseen fire, but did not fully capture the number of people and the amount of labor required to operate it.  The wooden engine consisted of a pump enclosed within a tower mounted on a chassis.  Handles on either side of the tower worked the pump.  A leather hose fed the pump with water via a connection on the chassis.  Pumping the engine forced a stream of water to spray from an inflexible metal tube attached to the top of the tower.  As others worked the pump, an operator standing atop the tower manipulated the position of that tube, pointing it in the right direction and adjusting its position, in an effort to douse the fire.

Fire constituted a significant hazard in cities like Philadelphia with so many buildings made of wood crowded closely together.  Just a few years after Mason published his advertisement, a fire destroyed a large portion of New York.  Municipal fire departments did not yet exist.  Instead, colonizers formed their own companies.  Mason sought customers for his “ENGINES of all sorts for extinguishing of fire” among his fellow residents of Philadelphia rather than the local government.

Watch a brigade operate a replica of an eighteenth-century fire engine at Colonial Williamsburg.

November 13

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

Nov 13 - 11:10:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (November 10, 1768).

“Orders from the West-Indies, or any part of America, &c. shall be faithfully complied with.”

When Richard Mason placed an advertisement for his “FIRE-ENGINES of the newest construction” in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the fall of 1768, he anticipated reaching an audience far beyond the residents of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Gazette, formerly published by Benjamin Franklin but then published by David Hall (Franklin’s partner who assumed control of the printing office upon his retirement from printing) and William Sellers, was one of the most successful and widely circulated newspapers in the colonies. It regularly included a supplement devoted entirely to advertising, sometimes two pages printing on both sides of a half sheet but often four pages that required an entire broadsheet and doubled the amount of content of a standard issue. The proportion of paid notices to other items made it clear that the Pennsylvania Gazette was a delivery mechanism for advertising that happened to carry some news.

And deliver advertising it did! After describing in detail the fire engines that he made and sold, Mason advised that “Orders from the West-Indies, or any part of America, &c. shall be faithfully complied with.” In addition, he “will also undertake to keep all the fire engines of this city in repair.” With a single advertisement, Mason strove to position himself in multiple markets, near and far. It comes as no surprise that he offered goods and services to residents of Philadelphia. His call for orders from the West Indies and mainland North America, however, suggests that he had a reasonable expectation that the Pennsylvania Gazette would find its way into the hands of readers and prospective customers in faraway places. Even if they did not maintain their own subscription, they might read the Pennsylvania Gazette at coffeehouses that made newspapers from Europe and the colonies available to their clients, or they might come into possession of a copy that passed from hand to hand via the networks of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic world. Mason may not have anticipated that the bulk of his business would derive “from the West-Indies, or any part of America,” but he recognized the possibility. Another advertisement on the same page offered “Freight or Passage” aboard the Clarendon bound for “KINGSTON, in JAMAICA.” In addition to goods and people, it likely carried news, including copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette and other newspapers, to other port cities.