May 29

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

May 29 - 5:29:1769 New-York Chronicle
New-York Chronicle (May 29, 1769).

“A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of … negroes.”

Colonists who read any of the newspapers published in New York in the late 1760s were likely familiar with John Coghill Knapp and the services he provided at the “Scrivener, Register, & Conveyance Office.” The attorney frequently inserted lengthy advertisements in multiple newspapers simultaneously. When Alexander Robertson and James Robertson launched the New-York Chronicle in May 1769, Knapp was one of the first to place an advertisement in their new publication. Indeed, when the Robertsons distributed their first issue on May 8 it included one of Knapp’s advertisements; the same advertisement appeared each week for the remainder of the month and beyond.

The inclusion of Knapp’s advertisement meant that the Robertsons and the New-York Chronicle were enmeshed in the slave trade as soon as the publication commenced. Among the many services he provided, Knapp consistently advertised slaves for sale or otherwise acted as a broker for clients seeking to find buyers for enslaved men, women, and children. In his advertisement in the inaugural issue of the New-York Chronicle, he advised readers that “A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of estates for sale either in land, houses, or ground to build on; negroes, and white servants time; to which purchasers may have fee access.” In other words, he invited readers to visit his office to peruse the listings of enslaved people for sale, neatly organized in a register along with real estate and indentured servants.

Print culture, especially newspapers, played an important role in shaping politics during the revolutionary era, spreading information about the imperial crisis and various modes of resistance adopted throughout the colonies. As a result, printers and the press have long been recognized as agents of liberty and the patriot cause. Depicting the press solely as a progressive instrument, however, misses an important part of the story of the American founding. Advertisements that offered enslaved people for sale or offered rewards for those who had escaped in hopes of achieving their own freedom also testify to the power of the press yet demonstrate that it did not always serve the ideals of liberty for all who resided in the colonies. Even as the press became a significant tool advocating the cause of freedom for some colonists, it helped perpetuate the enslavement of others.

November 3

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

Nov 3 - 11:3:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (November 3, 1768).

“Circumstances may yet enable him to set one Day in Six apart to give Advice to indigent Persons, Gratis.”

John Coghill Knapp, “Attorney at Law,” was a familiar figure to colonists who read the New York newspapers in the 1760s. He frequently placed lengthy, chatty advertisements offering a variety of legal services. In November 1768 he inserted a new advertisement, one that extended half a column, in the New-York Journal. He proclaimed that he “WILL continue to give the most candid Opinion and Advice, in all Cases of Law or Equity, with such Reasons laid down in Support thereof, as fully to give the desired Satisfaction.” He drew up “Memorials, Remonstrances, or any Case” as well as “Writings and Conveyances of every Kind, from the smallest Agreement, to Deeds of the greatest Consequence.” Although he did not state it explicitly in this new advertisement, earlier notices made clear that “Conveyances of every Kind” included the buying and selling of enslaved men, women, and children. As he had done in previous advertisements, he promised “strict Secrecy, Integrity, and Dispatch” in serving all his clients no matter what kind of work they brought to his office.

In addition to those attributes particularly valued in an attorney, Knapp concluded by declaring that he had “some Hopes, Circumstances may yet enable him to set one Day in Six apart to give Advice to indigent Persons, Gratis.” He aspired to some day be in a position to provide free legal services to those who could not otherwise afford his fees, but he did not have the means to do so at the moment. The lawyer cleverly leveraged his best intentions, which testified to his character, to attract clients who could pay. He did so while simultaneously promoting his industriousness, indicating that he pursued his profession six days of every week. Just as he set the seventh day aside for worship, he desired to set the sixth day aside for altruism. That was only possible, however, if he earned enough throughout the rest of the week to support himself. Knapp suggested that he wanted to provide aid “to all indigent Persons,” but called on prospective clients to give him the opportunity to do so. By engaging his services, they indirectly contributed to a charitable enterprise. Knapp attempted to distinguish himself from other attorneys by deploying philanthropy as a marketing strategy.

September 22

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

sep-22-9221766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (September 22, 1766).

“Mr. KNAPP, with strict Candour, agreeable to the Constitution, and Fundamentals of Law and Equity, will give his Opinion and Advice on any Case.”

Lengthy expositions and sensational narratives by John Coghill Knapp were a fixture among the advertisements that appeared in the New-York Mercury in 1766, giving the impression that the “Attorney at Law” loved to talk in real life and would spare no effort in pursuing the interests of his clients. The preponderance of prose in his advertisements may have been a selling point, demonstrating to potential clients that he left no stone unturned and no contingency unanticipated.

While it may not be completely fair to compare Knapp’s legal philosophy to modern ambulance chasers known for their obnoxiously loud television commercials and flashy billboards, the two both adopted modes of advertising intended to attract as much attention as possible. Force of personality played a part in Knapp’s advertising, but he also resorted to gimmicks to tempt potential customers to avail themselves of his services. He promised to “give his Opinion and Advice on any Case, verbally stated, for One Dollar.” This one-price-fits-all fee structure seemed designed to get as many clients as possible into his office on Rotten Row, especially those nervous about the costs of consulting other attorneys.

Knapp’s fee structure also suggested that he sought to work with common men and women, not just the elite and affluent. In addition to charging one dollar for cases “verbally stated,” he charged “similar easy Terms” for cases in writing, depending on “the Length of papers to peruse, and Number of Questions to solve.” Knapp recognized that many of his potential clients might not have extensive documents (or any at all) related to their legal concerns. He also implicitly acknowledged that some potential clients might be able to read his advertisements but not write much (or anything) about the various situations he described in his advertisement.

Knapp developed an over-the-top persona in his advertisements as he positioned himself as a lawyer who served everyday people.

June 10

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

Jun 10 - 6:9:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (June 9, 1766).

“PERMIT me thus heartily to congratulate you on the Expulsion of an Act which must have involved these respectable Colonies into the utmost Difficulty.”

A week ago the Adverts 250 Project featured a “to be continued” advertisement placed by John Coghill Knapp from the “Scrivener, Register, and Conveyancer’s OFFICE, on Rotten-Row.” The lawyer’s advertisement concluded with a not that “The Remainder of this Advertisement, with some further Remarks that may be beneficial to the Publick, in our next.” The wording raised questions about whether the advertiser or the printer made the decision to delay publication of “The Remainder.” Did Knapp devise a clever means of inciting interest in whatever might appear in “The Remainder” or did the printer run out of space and choose to truncate the advertisement? After all, it wasn’t uncommon for printers to insert notices that advertisements that had not appeared in the current issue would be published in the next.

An examination of the dates attached to each advertisement may help to answer this question. The original advertisement, published in the June 2 issue of the New-York Mercury, was dated “2d of June.” It was written the same day that it was printed (or, more likely, post-dated to be current with the issue). “The Remainder” that appeared in the June 9 issue of the New-York Mercury was dated “June 7” – after the previous issue, making it more likely that Knapp did originally intend to have the advertisement appear in separate pieces in two consecutive issues.

What were these “further Remarks that may be beneficial to the Publick” that Knapp promised and expected readers to anticipate? Knapp published an extended reflection on the repeal of the Stamp Act, “the Expulsion of an Act which must have involved these respectable Colonies in the utmost Difficulty.” In particular , he lauded “that great Defender of LIBERTY, the most Noble and Right Honorable WILLIAM PITT.” Knapp used politics and current events to appeal to potential clients who had protested the Stamp Act.

In a second paragraph, he discussed his own virtues as an attorney. In addition, he stated that he was “again admitted to Practice in that Profession to which I was regularly bred.” In his previous advertisement he had announced that he “received his Education at the University of Oxford; was regularly bred to the Profession of the LAW.” The Stamp Act disrupted attorneys’ work since legal documents were supposed to be recorded on stamped paper. Knapp lamented that “the Stagnation of Business during the Debate of that weighty Affair, has been sorely felt.” Now that the repeal had gone into effect, Knapp was “again admitted” to practicing the law now that the colonies had reverted to “Dear Liberty, the Birth-Right” of the Britons who resided there.

June 3

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

Jun 3 - 6:2:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (June 2, 1766).

For all intents and purposes, John Coghill Knapp’s advertisement for his legal service concluded with a version of “to be continued,” prompting readers to seek out his advertisement in the next issue of the New-York Mercury. Perhaps this helped to draw greater attention to the services he offered.

The wording, however, suggests that Knapp may not have devised this innovation on his own. Indeed, it may have been an accidental innovation rather than a purposeful strategy for inciting interest in the remainder of Knapp’s advertisement. The notice at the end of the advertisement states that it will be continued “in our next” issue rather than “in the next” issue. The distinction between “our” and “the” puts the statement in the printer’s voice, regardless of who composed the rest of the advertisement. This notice appeared at the bottom of a column. It seems likely that the printer ran out of space to insert Knapp’s entire advertisement but instead included as much as possible (probably adjusting the fees charged to Knapp accordingly).

What may have been the inconvenience of an incomplete advertisement could have worked to Knapp’s advantage in the end. The note that “further Remarks that may be beneficial to the Publick” would appear “in our next” issue incited anticipation and curiosity about what else Knapp would say about the legal services he provided. It certainly worked on this modern reader; I’ll feature the continuation of Knapp’s advertisement next week. (Did it work on you? Are you curious to see the updated advertisement a week from now?!)

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As an aside, be sure to note that this lawyer’s office was located “on Rotten-Row.” Modern readers may make of that what they wish!