What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A grand set of Fire-works.”
The proprietors of Ranelagh Garden advertised leisure activities, especially fireworks displays, to colonists in New York and the surrounding area throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 1768. As October drew to a close, they announced plans for “a grand Set of Fire-Works” for “the last Time for the Season.” The proprietors planned to go out with a bang, literally, by presenting a program that included “a Variety of Pieces, several of them in an intire new and elegant Taste.” The “Pieces” did not consist primarily of projectiles launched into the air and visible from some distance. Instead, they amounted to an ornamental design created by igniting devices filled with gunpowder and other combustible chemicals.
The show took place in four stages, each with a display even grander the previous. Indeed, the descriptions of the “FIRST FIRING” through the “FOURTH FIRING” became increasingly elaborate. The first, for instance, presented a “beautiful Cascade of different Fires,” but the grand finale consisted of “An illuminated Statue of Harlequin flying on a Cord, with a Fire Tube in his right Hand, which will set fire to an Italian Candle, I the right Hand of a Figure representing Columbine; which Figure will communicate Fire to an Horizontal Wheel, by which she will be turned round, backwards and forwards several Times. The Whole to conclude with the Flight of Harlequin, to the Place from whence he came, and several large double and single Rockets.”
This entire program was a show that colonists would be disappointed to miss, not only because it happened to be the last of the season. Several of the pieces had not “ever been exhibited here before,” including “A new Piece representing a large and beautiful Palm Tree, with three large Chinese Fountains, on the Top curiously decorated.” One of the most elaborate displays depicted “a magnificent Pavilion, with three Fronts beautifully embellished, with Illuminations, Chinese and Venetian Fountains, Italian Candles, and Diamonds, with the Letters G.R. under an illuminated Crown.” The initials stood for George Rex, a Latin appellation for George III. Colonists participated in entertainments that honored the monarch even as they quarreled with Parliament over the quartering of troops in Boston and the imposition of taxes on paper, glass, and other goods throughout the colonies.
Among the many advertisements for consumer goods that crowded New York’s newspapers, other notices promoted leisure activities. They marketed experiences to colonists who had the time and the means to partake in them. Along with pleasure gardens, spas, and inns, the fireworks at Ranelagh Gardens were part of an incipient tourism and hospitality industry that emerged as part of the consumer revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.