What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”
John Simnet, a watchmaker, placed rather colorful newspaper advertisements over the course of several years in the late 1760s and 1770s, first in the New-Hampshire Gazette and later in newspapers published in New York. During the time that he resided in New Hampshire, he engaged in nasty feud with a fellow watchmaker, Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith. Having trained and worked in London, Simnet accused Griffith of not possessing the same level of skill and suggested that Griffith actually damaged the watches he attempted to repair. In a series of advertisements, Simnet denigrated Griffith’s character, intellect, and skill.
That rivalry may have played a part in Simnet’s decision to relocate to New York. He once again turned to the public prints to promote his business. For a time, he focused primarily on his own credentials and expertise, but old habits died hard. Simnet eventually found himself embroiled in another feud with a fellow watchmaker, though James Yeoman appears to have been the first to pursue their disagreement in print with an advertisement that seemed to critique Simnet’s credentials without naming him. Given his personality, Simnet may have initiated the insults in person before the dispute moved into advertisements in the newspapers. Regardless of who started it, Simnet had extensive experience demeaning a competitor in print. In March 1772, he deployed some of the same strategies that he used against Griffith a few years earlier.
Even though he could not resist placing negative advertisements about Yeoman, Simnet may have learned from his experience in New Hampshire that consumers did not respond well to marketing campaigns that revolved entirely around disparaging others. In his next advertisement, published in the April 13, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he returned to the kinds of appeals that he incorporated into his notices when he first arrived in New York. He gave prospective customers a careful accounting of how much they could expect to pay for various goods and services, such as “a new Chain Six Shillings” and “the Price of joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings.” He also promoted his prices while offering a guarantee, stating that he set rates for “every particular Article in repairing, at HALF the Price charg’d by any other, and no future Expence while the Materials, that is, Wheels and Pinions will endure.” Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.” That may have been a subtle critique of his many competitors, but not a targeted attack on Yeoman or any other watchmaker in New York. To draw customers to his shop, Simnet also offered “such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”
Simnet has been a fascinating character to track over the past three years, in large part because he deviated so significantly from one of the standard advertising practices of the period. He sometimes placed advertisements that vilified his rivals rather than focusing on his expertise and experience. Yet Simnet did not always go negative. He also published advertisements that incorporated the tone and appeals usually found in newspaper notices by artisans. In some cases, he also crafted innovative appeals, including free services to entice prospective customers into his shop in hopes of establishing relationships with them. As an advertiser, he covered a greater range of appeals, positive and negative, than just about anyone else marketing their goods and services in the colonies in the decade before the American Revolution.