May 16

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

May 16 - 5:16:1768 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (May 16, 1768).

“BURROWS DOWDNEY … MAKES and repairs all Kinds od Clocks and Watches.”


When it came to advertising, watch- and clockmaker Burrows Dowdney was industrious, advertising in more than one newspaper published in Philadelphia in the late 1760s. Although he deployed fairly standard language to describe his services, pledging “the utmost care and dispatch” in doing his work “after the neatest and best manner,” he adopted other means of distinguishing his advertisements from those placed by other artisans. In particular, Dowdney embellished his notices with visual images related to his occupation and his wares.

Yesterday the Adverts 250 Project examined one of those advertisements published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It included a woodcut of an engraved clock dial with hours in Roman numerals and minutes in Arabic numerals as well as other decorative elements. Dowdney placed another advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle the same week that he advertised in the Gazette, repeating the copy almost exactly but with a different and even more impressive woodcut. It depicted an elegant dial with an arched top that denoted the phases of the moon. Readers could also view the day of the month on the dial. These additional elements further testified to the complexity of the clocks Dowdney constructed, proclaiming to prospective customers that they were not intended merely for keeping time. Instead, they were meant for display, to create genteel living spaces, to impress friends and visitors. Although not depicted in the woodcut, readers could expect the ornamentation of the cases to rival the engraved dials.

Commissioning not one but two woodcuts represented a significant investment for Dowdney, but he may have considered it a necessary expense as he commenced his own business “in the Shop lately occupied by Mr. Emanuel Rouse” on Front Street. As a newcomer, he needed to attract a clientele for his shop quickly to avoid failing before even having a chance to get started. Commissioning woodcuts that featured much more detail than most of the images that appeared in colonial newspapers demonstrated his commitment and attention to detail, reassuring prospective customers that he did not merely reiterate the usual marketing pitches but did indeed construct clocks “after the neatest and best manner.” The woodcuts certified the quality and elegance associated with clocks made by Burrows Dowdney.

September 4

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

Sep 4 - 9:4:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (September 4, 1767).


Mr. Pike, a dancing and fencing instructor, was well known to the residents of Charleston, especially readers of the South-Carolina and American Gazette and other local newspapers who regularly encountered advertisements for his “DANCING SCHOOL.” The dancing master cultivated an aura of mystery by never using his first name in his newspaper notices, neither in Charleston in the 1760s nor in Philadelphia in the 1770s. Pike considered himself enough of a celebrity that he did not find it necessary to offer much information about the lessons he taught during daytime hours except to note that he did so “upon the same terms as usual.” He expected that the public, at least those most likely to partake of his services, was already familiar with the “terms” for youth who wished to attend his dancing school.

Many dancing masters targeted young people in their advertisements, but colonists of any age benefited from lessons. Adults could further refine their skills or learn new and unfamiliar steps as they became popular. To that end, Pike offered lessons for “GROWN GENTLEMEN … every evening from six to nine.” He realized that most men had other responsibilities during the day so scheduled his lessons for when they were more likely available to visit his school. Similarly, he offered instruction in the “use of the SMALL-SWORD” in the early morning.

For genteel colonists – and those who aspired to gentility – Pike’s lessons supplemented the education they received from schoolmasters and tutors that placed their own advertisements that described other sorts of lessons and curricula. The better sort believed that true gentility manifested itself not only in intellectual pursuits, such as reading and discussing classical texts, speaking French, and participating in conversations with others who appreciated belles lettres, but also in physical activities that demanded physical discipline and proper comportment of the body, especially dancing and, for men, fencing.

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:19:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (June 19, 1767).

“He proposes to open a DANCING SCHOOL.”

Peter Curtis wished to open a dancing school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and inserted an advertisement to that effect in the local newspaper. In the decade before the Revolution, dancing masters frequently advertised their services in newspapers published in the largest port cities, especially Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. Fewer of them, however, placed notices proposing to open schools or teach private lessons in smaller towns. Curtis’s advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette was rather out of the ordinary.

Still, Curtis must have suspected that he could cultivate a market for his skills in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. After all, the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” he addressed in his advertisement participated in the same consumer culture as their counterparts in major port cities. Many colonists adopted various consumption practices – outfitting themselves in the latest styles and displaying fashionable furnishings and housewares – to demonstrate they belonged among the ranks of the genteel. Yet possessions alone did not guarantee that others would acknowledge the gentility of those who acquired them. Personal comportment became a measure for distinguishing the truly genteel from crass pretenders who merely made purchases. Manners, conversation, and dancing, among other pursuits, all played a role. Dancing well, completing the latest steps with grace while interacting easily with others in attendance at social gatherings, testified to an individual’s inner refinement that could not be counterfeited by wearing the right sorts of apparel and adornments. To that end, Curtis pledged to teach his pupils “in the most polite and genteel Manner.”

The colonial gentry in the major port cities availed themselves of lessons from dancing masters because they wished to assert that they were as cosmopolitan as their cousins in London. Other residents sought social mobility; they identified dancing as a means of demonstrating their own refinement matched their elite neighnors. For both, anxiety provided motivation. Curtis’s advertisement suggests that interest in dancing as a means of exhibiting refinement was not limited to urban ports in early America. Instead, with the help of advertisements to incite demand, it filtered out to smaller cities, like Portsmouth, and beyond. Curtis solicited customers “within Twenty Miles,” pledging to visit their homes for private lessons. He believed that some residents in the countryside, especially the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” considered the local elite and who wanted to safeguard that position, could be convinced that they desired to become as cosmopolitan and refined as the better sorts in colonial cities.

April 19

GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1767 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (April 17, 1767).

“A Genteel Lodging and Boarding for a single Gentleman, Enquire in Tradd-street, of JAMES KING.”

This is the entire advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. However, this is why I picked it. Although only fourteen words, this advertisement poses a lot of questions, the most important being the usage of the word “genteel.” What did “genteel” mean in eighteenth-century America?

The Oxford English Dictionary states that genteel means “Belonging to or included among the gentry; of a rank above the commonalty.” Other definitions similarly state “Appropriate to persons of quality,” “characteristic of persons of quality,” and “suited to the station of a gentleman or gentlewoman.” When describing dwellings, food, meals, and hospitality – like the “Lodging and Boarding” in this advertisement – “genteel” means “Stylish, fashionably elegant or sumptuous.” This is important because it suggests that King advertised to someone who was looking for accommodations appropriate for his social ranking or perhaps even hoping to move up in status.

“Genteel” also referred to how people acted in addition to describing consumer goods and “Lodging and Boarding.” The Oxford English Dictionary also includes these definitions: “Having the habits characteristic of superior station” and “Of behavior: courteous, polite, obliging.” According to Cathy Hellier at Colonial Williamsburg, “Not only how something was said, but when it was said, were reflective of the social positions of the speakers.” This advertisement, regardless of its short length, shows the importance placed on social status in colonial and Revolutionary America.



Inviting undergraduates to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project opens up a variety of opportunities, not only for the students but also for me as an instructor and a scholar. Through their own efforts on the project, students often convince me to look at familiar material in new ways.

Take today’s featured advertisement. When Jonathan submitted it to me for consideration I told him that I would approve it because it fit within the parameters of the project and adhered to its methodology, but I also suggested that it seemed a bit sparse, especially compared to many of the more substantial advertisements that appeared in the same issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Although I approved King’s advertisement for “Lodging and Boarding,” I recommended that Jonathan consider alternatives and let him know that he could switch to another advertisement if he experienced too much difficulty examining this one. Jonathan assured me that he would find something interesting and significant to say about King’s advertisement. I was both curious and anxious when he began independently pursuing his research and writing the first draft of today’s entry. I had no idea how he might approach what appeared to be such a simple advertisement.

I was pleasantly surprised when Jonathan submitted his initial analysis of the advertisement. In focusing on a single word, “genteel,” he opened a portal to investigating eighteenth-century understandings of status, personal comportment, and social mobility. He originally relied solely on Cathy Hellier’s article, but I suggested that if he really wanted to understand the meaning of “genteel” in the eighteenth century that he also needed to incorporate the OED’s treatment of the word. This was a new source for Jonathan, at least as far as conducting historical research was concerned. In the following draft, he included one of the entries from the OED. Working together, we fleshed out his revised entry and better harnessed the OED’s extensive treatment of “genteel” to introduce readers to the many shades of meaning associated with the word in early America.

This was a learning experience for me as much as it was for Jonathan. I spend so much time examining eighteenth-century sources that the word “genteel” did not even register with me when I initially reviewed today’s advertisement. As a student interested but not immersed in early American history, on the other hand, Jonathan did not take “genteel” for granted. By training different eyes on the same advertisement, he raised important questions about an advertisement that turned out not to be as simple as I initially thought. In so doing, he implicitly made an argument that I regularly advance: advertisements that appear to be little more than notices often turn out to have layers of meaning and significance when examined more closely.

April 5


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

Apr 5 - 4:4:1767 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 5, 1767).

“A FRESH and NEW Assortment of English and India Goods.”

I chose this advertisement because it specifically mentioned English products. One thing that has surprised me over the course of my research into consumer culture is how much Americans tried to emulate British society in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. This is interesting because in the 1760s and 1770s colonists had continent-wide movements to reject both British importations and government.

To understand the original interest in British goods, even so close to the American Revolution, what the products represented has to be understood. In 1767 many colonists viewed England, especially London, as very genteel and sophisticated. This idea generated a sizable demand for imported goods. The motivation for owning these goods, however useful they might have been, was not purely functional. Many colonists had a mindset like this: the more English items owned, the more refined (and wealthy) a person was. This assumption went both ways. If a colonist owned an English item, it not only boosted that person’s understanding of their personal socioeconomic status, but also affected their peers’ judgment. In addition to the material possessions, even the use of such these products came under scrutiny of fellow colonists. As the public historians at Colonial Williamsburg explain, “Those who owned the ‘right stuff’ without knowing how to use it properly gave themselves away as imposters.” The social rituals and protocols associated with many goods were complicated, and no one wanted to seem like an uncouth pretender. Overall, if colonists possessed a fashionable product, especially if it was an object associated with genteel society, they could express their real (or perceived) higher status, for just a small fee to a seller like Thompson and Arnold.



Price. Choice. Fashion. These were some of the most common appeals to consumers that appeared in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. As Megan notes, Thompson and Arnold implicitly advanced an appeal to fashion when they announced that they sold imported English goods. In addition, they made more explicit and extensive appeals to price and choice in their advertisement published in the Providence Gazette on April 4, 1767. Many advertisers merely made passing or brief mentions of the prices they charged for vast assortments of imported goods, but Thompson and Arnold made variations on these standard appeals in order to attract potential customers’ attention.

For instance, the shopkeepers did not resort to stating that they stocked an “assortment of goods.” Instead, they informed readers that their inventory included “Goods suitable for Town and Country, Winter and Summer.” In fact, they had such a broad array of merchandise that “to enumerate the Articles would take up too much Room for a News-Paper.” (Despite that protest, Thompson and Arnold previously published list-style advertisements that named dozens of imported goods they sold, and in recent months the Providence Gazette had repeatedly printed full-page advertisements for a variety of local shopkeepers, including Thompson and Arnold.) The partners boldly declared that they carried “as great a Variety of Article as can be found in any one Store in New-England.” Most advertisers promoted an assortment of goods as a means of allowing consumers to make choices that corresponded to their own tastes, choices that allowed them to make statements, as Megan notes, about their character, status, and familiarity with the rituals of gentility. Thompson and Arnold offered a different explanation for why it was significant that they carried such a vast variety of goods: “their Assortment is so large they hope to save their Customers the Trouble of going through the Town to supply themselves with the Necessaries they may want.” In presenting customers with so many goods that they “would take up too much Room” to list them in their advertisement, Thompson and Arnold underscored that they sold convenience in addition to choice, an innovative variation on one of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements.


January 19

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

New-York Mercury (January 19, 1767).

“SKATES, OF different sizes.”

Hubert Van Wagenen sold a variety of goods – from “Ironmongery and Cutlery” to textiles and “sundry sorts of other Dry-goods” – at his store “at the Golden Broad-ax” in New York, but he highlighted one item in particular to attract the attention of potential customers: “SKATES, OF different sizes.” Van Wagenen enumerated his merchandise in a typical list advertisement, but he set apart “SKATES” as the only word on the first line, printed in a larger font so as to serve as a headline that invited readers to further explore his other wares.

By the late colonial period ice skating was a popular pastime in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies, especially among the gentry. Along with dancing and fencing, skating allowed the better sorts to demonstrate grace, power, and agility. According to Nancy Struna, both men and women among the gentry and the middling sort aspiring to join the gentry “expected to play and display their prowess in such endeavors in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.”[1] To that end, they engaged in selected sports and other physical activities that simultaneously evoked pleasure and allowed them to demonstrate skill and discipline through their personal comportment. Physical improvement was as important an element of refinement as learning and manners.

Unlike some of his competitors, Van Wagenen did not make explicit appeals to gentility when describing any of the goods listed in his advertisement. He did not, for instance, use the word “fashionable” or underscore that he imported goods that reflected the latest tastes in London. He may not have considered any of that necessary. Realizing that readers likely considered skating a genteel leisure activity, the shopkeeper had an alternate means of associating gentility with his shop. By listing “SKATES” first and using them to headline his advertisement, he set the tone for how readers should imagine the housewares, textiles, and accessories he also sold.


[1] Nancy L. Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996) 121.

November 22

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane

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

Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766).

“SUPERFINE broad cloths.”

Gideon Young sold imported materials at his shop that people could use to make clothing. He sold some materials that were intended for the rich (“fashionable silks”) as well as some that were not intended for the rich (“midling and coarse broad cloths”). I found it interesting that he sold at low prices so that he could bring in rich or poor people. He wanted to bring as much attention to his shop as possible; the best way was having “cheap” prices for those who lived in Providence.

On the Colonial Williamsburg website, Edward R. Crews talks about the “18th Century love of fashion and the art of making clothes.” People who bought these materials from Young could then bring them to a milliner to make the clothing for them. Some of the colonists who bought from Young might use the materials to make fancy clothing. Young wanted to appeal to the lower class by having lower prices so that they too could make their own clothes that could also look fancy.



Who were Gideon Young’s customers? As Patrick notes, they could have included colonists from a variety of backgrounds. Young stocked some textiles that would have appealed to genteel gentlemen and ladies as well as others more likely to be purchased by the middling and lower sorts. By offering low prices, he invited all sorts of potential customers to visit his shop.

That Young attempted to cater to different kinds of clients demonstrates a tension that emerged as the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century expanded to include greater numbers of colonists. Products and fashions that had once been reserved for the elite increasingly became more widely accessible as the number of imported goods rose and prices fell. Affluent colonists engaged in conspicuous consumption as a means of continuing to distinguish themselves from their social subordinates. However, even as the elite bought more and more things, other colonists purchased what they could afford and engaged in their own acts of displaying their possessions – and their good taste – to others.

Young certainly wanted to make his customers feel special when he offered “fashionable silks” and “best black sattins, pelong, and alamode.” Yet he balanced a sense of exclusivity against “cheap” prices that suggested that not everyone who visited his shop on Union Street came from the upper echelons of Providence residents.

If all sorts of colonists could buy “fashionable” and “best” goods with all the “trimmings to suit” for low prices from shopkeepers like Young, how could the elite assert their status? A rise in concern for manners as well as attention to personal comportment accompanied the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Colonists concentrated on demonstrating their gentility through their actions and interactions with others rather than relying solely on their possessions to testify to their status. In such cases, the clothes did not, by themselves, make the man (or woman). Appearances and possessions were not enough to claim social status. Colonists who wanted to claim a place among the genteel also needed to exhibit politeness and demonstrate that they understood refined rules for social interactions.