September 11

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

Sep 11 - 9:8:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 8, 1768).

He has been mistaken for a Dancing-Master, whose Behaviour to his Scholars gave just Offence.”

Peter Vianey needed to do some damage control. Rumors had reached the itinerant dancing master that he had been confused for another dancing master, one known for having previously committed some sort of transgressions toward his students. Realizing that hearsay could scare away prospective clients, Vianey opted to address this case of mistaken identity in the public prints. He published an advertisement that did not look much different from those of his counterparts, except for the final paragraph. “Having been informed,” Vianey fretted, “that he has been mistaken for a Dancing-Master, whose Behaviour to his Scholars gave just Offence in this City some Years ago, he takes the Liberty to inform those who are not acquainted with him, that he never was in this Country, till the Year 1764.” Exercising discretion, Vianey did not offer any further details about the unsavory behavior of the other dancing master, a decision further calculated not to have another’s infractions attached to his name. After all, his ability to attract clients depended on his ability to establish and maintain a good reputation. To that end, he requested that “all who know him, will do him the Justice to testify that his Conduct has ever been regular and unexceptionable.” The only specific detail that mattered was that Vianey had only recently arrived, not only in New York but also in the colonies. His arrival was too recent for him to have been the culprit of whatever scandalous deeds had taken place several years earlier.

In Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York, Serena Zabin notes that “[a]t any time a dancing master might become an object of suspicion” because of the ambiguous status they held in colonial society. Dancing masters taught genteel conduct to their clients – in Vianey’s case, music and fencing in addition to dancing – but they were not themselves members of the genteel ranks. As Zabin explains, dancing masters “had to tread a social tightrope,” exhibiting sufficient gentility to avoid being considered a disreputable fraud but not so much as to confuse the distinctions in status that separated the instructors who provided a service and the students that paid their fees.[1] Vianey, like any other dancing master, was already in a difficult position when it came to marketing his lessons, an enterprise that made his identity, character, and status just as much the center of attention as the skills “discoverable in his Scholars” that emerged via his tutelage. Resurrecting old gossip and attributing misconduct to him only compounded his difficulties. Rather than pretend that he had not heard the malicious tales, Vianey vigorously defended his reputation in newspaper advertisements, requesting that others confirm that he was not the scoundrel that some mistakenly imagined.

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[1] Serena Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 103, 105.

July 22

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

Jul 22 - 7:21:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (July 21, 1766).

Mary Cowley was the subject of some gossip by “Envious or Prejudiced” residents of Newport. She placed this advertisement in part to promote her business enterprises and in part to set the record straight when it came to some false reports she had heard.

Cowley was a busy woman, which likely brought her under more scrutiny than some of her neighbors and made her a target of “Envious or Prejudiced” gossip. She pursued two occupations, proprietress of a house of entertainment and dancing instructor. Both of these may have made other colonists suspicious of her, especially if she was unmarried or widowed and without a male relative to oversee her activities and interactions with patrons who visited her at “the House near the Entrance of Mr. Dyer’s Grove” or her pupils for the dancing lessons she provided at her own house. Male dancing masters frequently inserted reassuring words in their advertisements to convince potential students and the general public of their propriety, which was especially important given the close physical contact with students inherent in dancing lessons. Cowley was also vulnerable to such suspicions, especially if she offered lessons in the absence of a patriarch to chaperone her. She did venture to address such concerns, but only pledged to “give Satisfaction in every Branch of my Undertaking.”

Entertaining “none but the genteeler Sort” (which may have entailed serving food and beverages and overseeing polite conversation) appears to have been a relatively new endeavor for Cowley. Some may have assumed that it would so distract her from teaching dancing that she would cease meeting with students, but she had “no Thoughts of giving up that Business.”

Unlike many other female advertisers who assured potential customers and the general public that they behaved in appropriately feminine fashion even though they operated businesses of their own and inserted their voice in the public prints to attract business, Mary Cowley took a much more assertive tone. She answered gossip that circulated beyond the newspaper and concluded by thanking “every Well wisher of their humble Servant” for the “due Encouragement” they would bestow upon her.