June 6

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

Jun 6 - 6:6:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (June 6, 1769).

Goldsmith and Jeweller, AT the Sign of the Gold Cup.”

Like many other eighteenth-century advertisers, John Andrew noted the proximity of a landmark to his shop when directing prospective customers to his location. In an advertisement that ran in the Essex Gazette on June 6, 1769, Andrew informed readers that they could find his shop “near the Long-Wharf-Lane” in Salem. Yet he did not rely solely on landmarks and street names to identify his business. Andrew also declared that customers could seek him out at “the Sign of the Gold Cup.” A goldsmith and jeweler, Andrew selected a device that resonated with his occupation to mark his location.

Andrew’s advertisement testifies to an element of the visual landscape that residents and visitors alike encountered in Salem and other towns on the eve of the American Revolution. Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others posted signs to identify where they did business. Often these signs featured images that became associated with both entrepreneurs and locations. In Andrew’s case, the “Sign of the Gold Cup” was appropriate for an artisan who “makes all Sorts of Goldsmith’s and Jewellery Ware,” yet others who followed different occupations most likely also made reference to that sign when giving directions. Advertisements from newspapers published in several cities reveal that even when they did not invest in signs themselves, colonists made use of signs posted by others to give directions. In addition to marking the locations of particular businesses, shop signs served as landmarks for navigating the vicinity. Just as Andrew stated that his shop was near Long Wharf Lane, advertisers sometimes invoked nearby signs erected by others as features that would aid prospective customers in finding their shops. Given the frequency that this occurred in newspaper advertisements, colonists likely adopted such strategies in conversation just as regularly. Useful not only for commerce, shop signs aided everyday navigation of the lanes, streets, and alleys in colonial cities and towns.

May 4

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

May 4 - 5:4:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (May 4, 1768).

“They intend carrying on their business in all its branches, as they have brought proper tools for that purpose.”

According to an advertisement they placed in the May 4, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette, William Sime and Jacob Moses had recently arrived in Savannah and planned to open their own shop in the small port city. They described themselves as “Goldsmith and Jewelers, from LONDON,” but did not indicate if they had migrated directly from the largest city in the empire or if they had practiced their trades in other cities before arriving in Georgia.  For the purposes of marketing their services, establishing a connection to the cosmopolitan center of the British Atlantic world mattered most.  It implied skill that arose from training and experience as well as familiarity with the most popular fashions.

Sime and Moses informed prospective customers that they were prepared for “carrying on their business in all its branches.”  They had “brought proper tools for that purpose” when they moved to Savannah. That they considered it necessary to make this point in their brief advertisement suggests that they anticipated potential clients might be concerned not only about their skill but also whether they possessed the necessary implements to follow through on their pledge of “having their work executed in the neatest manner,” a standard appeal made by artisans of all sorts throughout the eighteenth century.

Many advertisements for consumer goods and services from the period appear indistinguishable at first glance, in part because many incorporated formulaic language to make many of the most common appeals to price, quality, fashion, or skill.  Sime and Moses merely reiterated some phrases used in countless other advertisements:  “in the neatest manner” and “at the shortest notice.”  Yet their notice was not completely unoriginal. Although artisans frequently trumpeted their skill and the quality of their work, very few made reference to the set of specific tools they needed to pursue their craft “in all its branches.” Sime and Moses adapted other advertisements to suit their purposes by adding unique content specific to their trade and their personal circumstances.

July 7

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

Jul 7 - 7:7:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (July 7, 1767).

“If any such Piece should break, he will mend the same Gratis.”

For many eighteenth-century artisans, making a living depended in part on establishing a creditable reputation, both for fair dealing and for skilled craftsmanship. Thomas You, a goldsmith in Charleston, devoted most of his advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to cultivating and maintaining his reputation, hoping to gain new clients as well as repeat business from previous patrons.

He reminded those who had employed him in the past of their “general Satisfaction” with his work, but he also suggested that this merited passing along “their kind Recommendation to others.” You did not believe that he could rely on word of mouth alone to promote his services to new clients; he apparently supposed that newspaper advertising could provoke word-of-mouth endorsements that would supplement notices in the public prints.

You also pursued another means of cultivating his reputation: he was so confident in the quality of his work that he offered a guarantee. “Any Piece of Plate worked up in his Shop,” the goldsmith pledged, “he will warrant as good as Sterling; and if any such Piece should break, he will mend the same Gratis.” In making this promise to fix defective work for free, You offered a blanket guarantee that covered not only the work done by his own hand but also any tasks undertaken by others who labored in his shop, whether journeymen, apprentices, or enslaved artisans.

You incorporated other appeals into his advertisement, including low prices and punctual service on orders sent by mail, but he saved those for after his endeavors to secure his reputation. He revealed what he thought was most important to his customers. Low prices or quick responses hardly mattered if they accompanied inferior work. The goldsmith first needed to establish the quality of his work, reflected in both his existing reputation and a guarantee on future jobs, in order to convince potential customers of the value of the other appeals he advanced.

April 27

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

Apr 27 - 4:27:1767 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (April 27, 1767).

“I will work for the following prices.”

Charles Oliver Bruff, “Gold-smith and Jeweler,” was in a price war with “three different Silver-smiths” in New York. Bruff frequently advertised in the New-York Mercury, but he departed from his usual description of his merchandise and promises to provide good service to “the Gentlemen and Ladies of this city and country” to address a problem created by some of his competitors. He accused those “three different Silver-smiths” of undervaluing his work, making it seem as though he charged unreasonable prices.

To protect his reputation and avoid losing more business to his unscrupulous competitors, Bruff went to the rather extraordinary measure of listing his prices for the entire community to see, assess for themselves, and compare to the rates charged by other “Gentlemen of the trade.” He specified nine prices, including “For making a silver tankard, 3s. per ounce,” and “For making a soop-spoon, 20s.”

Bruff may not have been the innocent victim that he tried to portray himself. His initial prices may have been inflated, but he could not admit to that in his advertisement. Instead, he offered an alternate narrative that depicted his competitors as lacking in sound judgment when it came to assessing the quality of his work and the value of products in their trade more generally. At the same time, he lowered his own prices, seemingly forced to do so in order to continue to attract clients. As a result, new customers would receive quite a bargain since Bruff did not wish to “hurt myself for others” by charging full value for his workmanship only to be undercut by competitors. He concluded his advertisement by stating definitively that he would “work as cheap as any in this city.” Even if Bruff had overcharged in the past, intentionally or not, potential patrons need not worry about that happening if they now chose to deal with him.

May 5

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

May 5 - 5:5:1766 Boston Gazette
Boston Gazette (May 5, 1766).

“BEST neat Shoe & Knee Chapes.”

What were shoe and knee chapes? Colonial readers would have instantly recognized shoe and knee chapes as buckles. Eighteenth-century consumers had an extensive vocabulary for personal adornment, from the assortment of textiles frequently listed in advertisements to the perukes examined yesterday. A visit to an eighteenth-century shop likely involved a conversation that in many ways would be partially incomprehensible today.

May 5 - Chapes
Shoe and knee buckles.  These photos are on the same scale, demonstrating the relative size of shoe and knee buckles.

John Symmes imported his “Shoe & Knee Chapes” from London, but he likely customized them according to the taste and budget of his customers. He concluded his advertisement by noting that he was not solely a shopkeeper; instead, “All Sorts of Goldsmith’s and Jeweller’s Work” could be “done in the neatest Manner at said Shop.” According to Carolyn L. White (in American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820), buckles were frequently decorated with a variety of jewels or their paste substitutes (since buckles were frequently lost). White documents an entire industry devoted to making, adorning, and retailing shoe and knee chapes in the eighteenth century.

May 5 - Earl Portrait of David Baldwin
Ralph Earl, Portrait of David Baldwin (1790).  High Museum of Art, Atlanta.  Note that Baldwin wears both shoe and knee buckles.

Like other historians of material culture in early America, White consulted newspaper advertisements extensively to reconstruct the merchandise and services available in the eighteenth century. Again we see the enduring value of advertising from the period: it gives us glimpses of daily life 250 years ago and, in some cases, provides the most complete information about the business activities and personal possessions of colonists.

March 4

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

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

Mar 4 - 3:3:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (March 3, 1766).

“Making or mending any Kind of Diamond or enameled Work.”

Charles Oliver Bruff’s advertisement offers a wide variety of popular jewelry to be made and mended. Jewelry made between 1714 and 1847 comes from the Georgian Era. It is important to note that jewelry was not made the same way it is today. According to the International Gem Society, the process was far more labor-intensive. Gold and metal ingots needed to be rolled into thin sheets before they could be formed into the popular styles of the time.

Bruff chose to market a variety of popular merchandise, but one that is specifically interesting is pinchbeck buckles. Pinchbeck was a material commonly used that looks like gold but is much more affordable. Oliver’s choice to advertise this along with more expensive jewelry is interesting because it shows that he was trying to appeal to people of many different economic backgrounds. Jewelry was primarily a luxury of the elite society, but Oliver’s advertisement alludes to the inclusion of customers from other economic statuses.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Of all the possible items in Bruff’s advertisement that Trevor chose to investigate, he selected pinchbeck buckles. That, in turn, led me to a fascinating discovery when I clicked the hyperlink to a dictionary definition of “pinchbeck” that he included to accompany his commentary for today. The first entry refers explicitly to “the Jewellery Way” (as Bruff put it): “an alloy of copper and zinc used especially to imitate gold in jewelry.”

A second entry, however, indicates that “pinchbeck” could also mean “something counterfeit or spurious.” It seems unlikely that Bruff intended to suggest that his buckles should be considered inferior in any way, but colonial consumers would have known that pinchbeck buckles were made of something other than gold (especially since Bruff promised to sell them “cheap by the dozen”).

A variety of scholars – including those who study consumer culture, material culture, manners, and reputation – have argued that assessing the dress and comportment of others became a cultural preoccupation in the eighteenth century. Especially as greater numbers of people of diverse statuses possessed an increasing array of goods as the consumer revolution progressed, colonists attempted to distinguish the truly genteel from those who merely simulated gentility. Colonists carefully observed each other to see if inner character matched an individual’s outward appearance.

In that context, pinchbeck buckles potentially presented a bit of a conundrum. What did it say about someone who wore accoutrements that looked like gold all while knowing that the appearance of the more costly metal misrepresented the true nature of the alloy that was actually used? Could that be interpreted as a reflection on one’s own character? Social mobility was fraught with such dilemmas in the eighteenth century.