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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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?

jan-19-1191767-new-york-mercury
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.

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[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?

nov-22-11221766-providence-gazette
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.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

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.

August 19

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

Aug 19 - 8:18:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (August 18, 1766).

“DANCING IS Taught by the Subscriber, in a genteel and easy Method.”

John Trotter and other dancing masters regularly advertised their services in colonial America’s largest urban ports in the decade before the Revolution, hoping to catch the attention of the elite as well as middling folks aspiring to join the ranks of the better sorts. Their prospective pupils may have resided in distant outposts of the British Empire like New York and Philadelphia, but those colonists strived to achieve the same cosmopolitanism as metropolitan London. Learning to dance or to speak French or (for men) to fence were considered marks of gentility, evidence that the colonial elite understood and achieved sophistication in their own right despite the distance that separated them from the centers of fashion, culture, and commerce in the Europe.

Trotter’s advertisement was relatively spared compared to the details included in notices placed by other dancing masters. He did not explicitly play on the anxieties of his potential customers in the same manner as some of his competitors (warning, for instance, that if readers did not learn the newest and most fashionable steps that they would be publicly embarrassed at social gatherings), but he may not have considered it necessary to be quite so heavy-handed. He may have assumed from the discourses surrounding him, both in conversation and in print, that the customers he wished to attract already experienced the sort of anxiety about their social position and identity that would prompt them to engage the services of a dancing master.

Trotter did offer his services to both “Gentlemen and Ladies.” He did so at two locations, “his House in Chaple-Street, next Door to the Play-House, and at Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.” Being able to take lessons at Mrs. Demot’s may have been especially important for female pupils. Dancing involved close contact, a certain level of intimacy that could be misconstrued or the cause of gossip that could call into question someone’s character as well as damage reputations, especially if those lessons took place within the privacy of Trotter’s house. Male students might be willing to meet him there, but it’s likely that women preferred to have their lessons at Mrs. Demot’s where they would have a female chaperone. Given the necessity of a reputation for good character required to pursue his occupation, Trotter may also have preferred that female students had their lessons at “Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.”