June 12

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

Jun 12 - 6:9:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (June 9, 1768).

“The Fire-Works will be disposed in the following Order.”

Colonists in New York, especially those who read the New-York Journal, were aware that “two Italian Brothers” who created fireworks shows visited the city and resided among them in the spring of 1768. To draw audiences for their shows, the brothers adopted marketing strategies similar to those deployed by other itinerant entertainers in eighteenth-century America. They initially introduced themselves to a community that considered them strangers, presenting their credentials before their first public exhibition. In advertisements published in May they described themselves as “two Italian Brothers from Turin, (Engineers to the King of Sardinia).” They also informed New Yorkers that they had previously presented “very surprising Specimens of their Abilities before the Royal Family in Spain and with great Applause before his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, and all the Nobility at Bath.” They proclaimed that colonists in New York could witness the same fireworks demonstrations that had entertained some of the most powerful and important personages in Europe.

Subsequent advertisements dispensed with such puffery in favor of local testimonials to their skills as both engineers and entertainers. They no longer needed to assert that they had performed for nobility on the other side of the Atlantic because reports of their first shows at Ranelagh Gardens in New York spread by word of mouth. Such testimonials likely evoked less skepticism since a general buzz among those who had seen the fireworks or knew someone who had seen the fireworks or even knew someone who knew someone who had attended the performance provided more certain verification about the quality and entertainment value of the show than a list of dignitaries on the other side of the ocean. Indeed, the “two Italian Brothers” trumpeted that they had “given such Specimens of their Abilities (to the general Satisfaction of the Spectators) at the Fire-Works), which they have formerly exhibited” at Ranelagh Gardens that “some of the principal Gentlemen of this City” had encouraged them to put on another show.

In that regard they also followed a script established by other itinerant entertainers in their advertisements: begin by announcing a single performance or limited time engagement but upon establishing a reputation in the local marketplace extend the stay and promise bigger and bolder spectacles to assure prospective viewers that they too could witness the same entertainments that had captured the attention of so many of their friends and neighbors. For the fireworks engineers, this meant presenting a show “more curious than either of the former,” this one composed of four parts (each described in detail) rather than the three parts that comprised their first exhibition at Ranelagh Gardens. Like other performers who traveled from city to city in the colonies, the “two Italian Brothers” attempted to manage expectations for their shows in the press, inserting advertisements that first introduced them to the public and, later, others that offered one more chance to participate (and avoid being excluded from) an event that loomed large in local popular culture.

May 12

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

May 12 - 5:12:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (May 12, 1768).

“FIRE WORKS, PERFORMED by two Italian Brothers from Turin.”

In addition to purchasing an array of goods and services, colonial consumers also spent their money on assorted entertainments. Newspaper advertisements testify to both the popular culture and leisure activities of the period. The May 12, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal, for instance, included several advertisements that encouraged readers to gather to socialize at a range of venues that provided entertainment. Some of these, such as an advertisement for a tavern, offered activities available to readers at practically any time, but others, especially an advertisement for a fireworks display, featured one-time-only spectacles.

John Taylor inserted an advertisement announcing that he had just opened “a Tavern and House of public Entertainment” known as “The GLASS-HOUSE” on the outskirts of the city. He invited both “Gentlemen and Ladies” to patronize his new enterprise, pledging to “regale them in the genteelest Manner, with the best Accommodations of every Kind.” In particular, he proclaimed, “Dinners will be provided at the shortest Notice.” Taylor attempted to distinguish his tavern from the many others operating in New York at the time by depicting it as an upscale alternative to the bawdy and boisterous atmosphere in other establishments.

Colonists could also enjoy theatrical productions in some, but not all, of the largest cities. Traveling troupes also entertained residents in towns and villages. In New York, the American Company regularly advertised plays staged “At the Theatre in John-Street.” The company placed two advertisements in the May 12 edition of the New-York Journal, one announcing the program for Friday, May 13 and the other Monday, May 16. On Friday evening viewers would be treated to “A TRAGEDY, call’d VENICE PRESERV’D, OR A PLOT DISCOVER’D” and “A FARCE (never perform’d in America) call’d LOVE A-LA-MODE.” To convince readers to purchase tickets, the company claimed that that the farce would only be performed only once during the season. To raise the stakes, the advertisement included a brief history its popularity: “The above Farce has been acted with more Success than any dramatic Piece in the Memory of Man, for since it was first presented to the Town, it has been presented to crowded Audiences One Hundred and Fifty Seven Nights, and is still constantly play’d at least once a Week, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.” The company implied that they anticipated crowds, but cautioned that “No Person on any Pretence whatsoever, can be admitted behind the Scenes.” Each element of the advertisement was designed to persuade potential patrons to attend the show or risk feeling left out of a major event. The American Company sold an experience that yielded a sense of community; not participating, however, resulted in a sense of exclusion and regret.

Two “Italian Brothers from Turin” offered other entertainments for the evening of Saturday, May 14: a fireworks show in three parts at Renelagh Gardens. The brothers described each portion of the show in detail, but their words merely suggested the spectacle that readers would experience if they attended the exhibition. To provide further encouragement, they listed their credentials, claiming that they were “(Engineers to the King of Sardinia) who have given very surprising Specimens of their Abilities before the Royal Family in Spain, and with great Applause before his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, and all the Nobility at Bath.” Even though New York was an imperial outpost on the far side of the Atlantic, the advertisement suggested that its residents could enjoy some of the best entertainments that had amused royals and nobles in England and other places in Europe, but only if they seized the opportunity and made their way to Renelagh Gardens for the exhibition on the only night it would be performed.

Each of these advertisements peddled popular culture to consumers, encouraging them to purchase experiences in addition to goods. The various entertainments cultivated a sense of community among those who witnessed them. Just as merchants and shopkeepers cautioned colonists not to be left behind when it came to the goods they sold, performers and others whose services emphasized leisure activities portrayed participating in the events they sponsored as a means of establishing bonds with other colonists through shared experiences.