What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JAMES OLIPHANT, JEWELLER.”
When he moved to a new location in September 1769, jeweler James Oliphant ran an advertisement in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to inform prospective customers where to find him. In marketing his wares to consumers in Charleston, he provided a catalog of several services provided by colonial jewelers. In addition to making and selling jewelry, Oliphant “engraves and enamels a variety of patterns of motto rings and lockets, forms hair for them into cyphers, sprigs, flowers, trees, knots or another device.” He also “engraves coats of arms upon seals, plate,” and other items. As he listed these services he advanced some of the most common appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements. Clients acquired “the newest fashions” at his shop “upon the most reasonable terms.” Oliphant used fashion and price to encourage conspicuous consumption among “his friends and customers.”
While Oliphant’s advertisement gave an overview of the jewelry made and sold in his shop, it did not necessary reveal the contributions of every worker who labored there. Oliphant took credit for all items produced in his shop, but he may have had enslaved assistants who crafted “the newest fashions” and made it possible for him to charge “the most reasonable terms.” Another advertisement in the same issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette indicated that was the case for jeweler John-Paul Grimke. In a lengthy notice, Grimke announced his plans to retire. He scheduled an auction to liquidate his jewels, plate, watches, and other merchandise … as well as two “NEGRO BOYS” who worked in his shop. The two had been “brought up to the Jewellers Trade” and possessed many skills. They could “make Gold Rings and Buttons, engrave them very neatly, and do many other kinds of work.” Grimke offered a one-month trial period for prospective buyers who wished to assess their skills.
Throughout the eighteenth century, artisans who advertised products from their workshops often told incomplete stories about who made or contributed to making jewelry, furniture, shoes, or other items. Journeymen, apprentices, and enslaved laborers often worked alongside artisans who marketed everything produced in their shops as their own creations. Prior to his retirement, Grimke was the public face for his shop, but enslaved youth made significant contributions to his business. Oliphant did not disclose in his advertisement whether his business also benefited from the skilled labor of enslaved artisans. The “newest fashions” worn by the residents of Charleston may have been crafted, all or in part, by workers held in bondage.