May 8

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

Pennsylvania Chronicle (May 6, 1771).

“Mr. SAUNDERS’s stay in this City will be but a few weeks.”

Like many other itinerant performers, Hyman Saunders, an illusionist, placed newspaper advertisements to inform the public when he arrived in town and to attract audiences throughout his stay.  In February 1771, he placed a notice in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to announce that he planned to “CONTINUE his PERFORMANCES a few Nights” longer in that city, presumably extending his stay.  Anyone who wished to see him perform had only a limited time to do so.

Saunders apparently exaggerated how quickly he would move to a new town.  Three months later he arrived in Philadelphia and ran an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, asserting that his “stay in this City will be but a few weeks.”  Once again, he attempted to attract audiences by proclaiming that they could see his show for a limited time only.  Local audiences had two options for seeing Saunder’s show, general admission at Josiah Davenport’s tavern or private functions.  He gave performances at the Bunch of Grapes on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings.  At other times, he “also performs in private to any select company, at any place they please to appoint.”

Describing his act helped Saunders incite interest among prospective audiences.  He declared that they would witness “a variety of new astonishing and entertaining performance, by dexterity of hand, surpassing any thing of the kind that has hitherto been seen or attempted on this side the Atlantic.”  Saunders promised a spectacle unlike anything audiences had ever seen.  Spread over three acts, his illusions would “deceive the eye of the nicest observer, and appear in a manner supernatural.”  Some of those previous observers included “his Excellency the Earl of DUNMORE, governor of New-York” as well as “nobility and gentry” on both sides of the Atlantic.  Saunders expected that performing before such dignitaries testified to the quality of the illusions he would soon present to audiences in Philadelphia.

In announcing his arrival and describing his act, Saunders relied on anticipation and exhilaration to entice audiences to catch a performance at the Bunch of Grapes or to hire him for a private exhibition.  He asked readers to imagine his show, building a sense of anticipation that would transform into exhilaration when they witnessed the spectacle of illusions unlike any others previously seen in the colonies.  Saunders also encouraged readers to anticipate his departure after a few weeks, warning them not to wait to attend his performance or risk not having an opportunity to see his “dexterity of hand” for themselves.

February 4

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (February 4, 1771).

“He intends to CONTINUE his PERFORMANCES a few Nights.”

When Hyman Saunders, an illusionist, arrived in New York from Europe in the fall of 1770, he placed an advertisement in the New-York Journal to introduce himself and invite colonists to attend performances “at the house of Mr. Hyer, on Hunter’s Quay” or schedule a “private exhibition.”  Saunders encouraged the curious to see his show as soon as possible or risk missing it because his “stay in this city will be but a few weeks.”  Itinerant performers often deployed that strategy for inciting interest in the spectacles they offered to prospective audiences.  They created a form of scarcity when they stated that they would remain in town for only a limited time.

Sometimes itinerant performers did move to the next town fairly quickly.  Consider, for instance, the series of advertisements placed by an unnamed performer “who has Read and Sung in most of the great Towns in America” in the Providence, Boston, Salem, and Portsmouth in less than two months in the fall of 1769.  He offered a few performances in each place before moving along to the next.  Other performers attempted to encourage interest by proclaiming that they would soon depart for other places, but then remained much longer.  Such was the case for Saunders.  On February 4, 1771, he inserted an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  He no longer included his first name, perhaps believing that he achieved sufficient local celebrity in the three months he already spent in New York to dispense with such a detail.  He also eliminated the description of “variety of entertaining as well as surprising tricks” that appeared in earlier advertisements.  Instead, he simply announced that he “intends to CONTINUE his PERFORMANCES a few Nights … longer in NEW-YORK.”  That he remained in the city at that time was not by his own design but instead in response to the “PARTICIULAR DESIRE of several Ladies and Gentlemen,” or so he claimed.  Saunders sought to give the public what they wanted.  To that end, he also continued offering private shows “to any select Company,” suggesting another trajectory of demand for his “astonishing performances in the dexterity of hand.”

When they advertised, itinerant performers often emphasized that they would be in town for only a limited time so colonists needed to catch their shows before they were gone or else miss out on the popular culture experiences enjoyed by other members of their communities.  Performers often delayed their departures in order to offer additional shows.  Some, like Saunders who remained in New York for months, may not have planned to leave after a short time at all, but others did move along fairly quickly.  Even though he already remained in town for three months, Saunders attempted to leverage uncertainty about his departure in order to incite demand for his upcoming performances.