May 4

GUEST CURATOR: Tyler Reid

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (May 4, 1772).

“Be cautious, there are many … counterfeit watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”

John Simnet, a clock- and watchmaker, created this advertisement.  It displays a competitive market in 1772. Simnet emphasizes his “Term of Apprenticeship to Mr. Webster, Exchange Alley, London.”  He thought that his qualifications mattered.  He also mentioned his expertise in cleaning watches and fitting glasses. These skills mattered.  In an article about clocks and clockmakers in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, Michelle Smiley states that clockmaking “was considered an intellectual profession requiring great artisanal skill and scientific knowledge.”  In addition, “the mathematical precision and mechanical intricacy of the profession put it at a superior rank to the crafts of blacksmithing and carpentry.”  In his advertisement, Simnet had a big ego about his skill and knowledge, especially being trained in England and voyaging to the colonies.  He also complained about “counterfeit Watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”  He believed that colonists should be careful when buying watches from others because they might end up receiving broken merchandise.  He wanted customers to think of him as reliable, as someone who sold only good watches that worked well.  According to his advertisements, they could trust him because of his training in England.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When students in my classes submit their proposed advertisements for approval before moving to the research and writing phases of contributing the Adverts 250 Project, I often recognize the advertisers because I have already perused the newspapers to identify which notices belong in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  I did not simply recognize the advertiser that Tyler selected for his entry.  Instead, John Simnet has become very familiar to me over the past three years as I have traced his advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette in 1769 and 1770 and then in newspapers published in New York in the early 1770s.  I consider Simnet the most notorious of the advertisers featured on the Adverts 250 Project because he regularly disseminated negative advertisements that demeaned his competitors as much as they promoted his own skill, expertise, training, and experience.  In both Portsmouth and New York, he participated in bitter feuds with competitors in the public prints, sometimes demeaning character as well as their abilities.

Tyler was not yet familiar with Simnet when he selected this advertisement, one of several variations that Simnet published in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal in the spring of 1772.  He chose it because the headline for “WATCHES” caught his interest.  He wanted to learn more about clock- and watchmakers in early America.  This presented an opportunity for me to once again dovetail my teaching and my research, a pedagogical moment that could not be planned in advance when inviting students to select any advertisements they wished to feature.  They usually focus on a single advertisement, an appropriate approach for students working this intensively with primary sources for the first time.  They make all sorts of connections between their advertisements and commerce, politics, and daily life in eighteenth-century America.  Yet we have fewer opportunities to examine the advertisers and their marketing campaigns.  When Tyler chose Simnet’s advertisement from among the hundreds that he might have selected from the first week of May 1772, that gave all the students in my Revolutionary America class a chance to hear more about the clock- and watchmaker’s long history of placing cantankerous advertisements that deviated from the norms of the period.  This context better humanized Simnet, even if it did not make him particularly likeable.  Each advertisement represents a snapshot of a particular moment in the past, but I also underscored the value of examining multiple advertisements, placed over weeks or even years, as a means of constructing an even more robust understanding of the experiences of the advertisers and their world.

April 23

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

New-York Journal (April 23, 1772).

“‘Tis our sole Wish, that the Gent who advertises in Astronomy will favour us with a Specimen.”

John Simnet, “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London,” seemed to relish nothing more than sparring with an adversary in the public prints.  For eighteenth months in 1769 and 1770, he participated in a feud with rival watchmaker Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith in the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  After relocating to New York, he initially published advertisements that did not denigrate his competitors, but eventually found himself embroiled in a war of words with James Yeoman.

As part of that altercation, Simnet updated an advertisement that first ran in the March 19, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal.  On April 23, he removed a lengthy paragraph that cast aspersion on Yeoman in favor of a shorter paragraph meant to do the same.  In both, he addressed insults that Yeoman delivered in his advertisements, insults that the rival watchmaker was so committed to circulating that he resubmitted the copy to run for additional weeks.  (The April 9 edition of the New-York Journal included a new version of Yeoman’s advertisement, the type reset with new line breaks and the addition of the issue number in which that iteration first appeared.)  Yeoman listed his credentials for repairing “CLOCKS, ASTRONOMICAL, Musical or Plain” before concluding his advertisement with an assertion that “it is the sole Wish of the said James Yeoman, to obtain Favours only proportioned to the Knowledge he has, and the Satisfaction he affords in his Business.”

In the updated version of his advertisement, Simnet mocked Yeoman by paraphrasing his rival’s words.  “‘Tis our sole Wish,” he declared, “that the Gent who advertises in Astronomy will favour us with a Specimen of his Qualifications in that Science, for if he can cause the Planets, Eclipses, Comets, &c. to move on the Table, ‘twill save the Charge of Telescopes.”  Simnet questioned Yeoman’s ability to repair astronomical clocks, challenging him to provide examples of his work for others to examine.  Earlier in the advertisement, he mentioned the harm done to clocks and watches by “Persons not qualified to practice in this Business.”  The new paragraph more explicitly leveled that accusation at Yeoman.  Simnet seemed to hit his stride in his advertisements when he treated competitors with condescension, a tactic rarely adopted in eighteenth-century advertising.

April 15

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 13, 1772).

“Such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

John Simnet, a watchmaker, placed rather colorful newspaper advertisements over the course of several years in the late 1760s and 1770s, first in the New-Hampshire Gazette and later in newspapers published in New York.  During the time that he resided in New Hampshire, he engaged in nasty feud with a fellow watchmaker, Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith.  Having trained and worked in London, Simnet accused Griffith of not possessing the same level of skill and suggested that Griffith actually damaged the watches he attempted to repair.  In a series of advertisements, Simnet denigrated Griffith’s character, intellect, and skill.

That rivalry may have played a part in Simnet’s decision to relocate to New York.  He once again turned to the public prints to promote his business.  For a time, he focused primarily on his own credentials and expertise, but old habits died hard.  Simnet eventually found himself embroiled in another feud with a fellow watchmaker, though James Yeoman appears to have been the first to pursue their disagreement in print with an advertisement that seemed to critique Simnet’s credentials without naming him.  Given his personality, Simnet may have initiated the insults in person before the dispute moved into advertisements in the newspapers.  Regardless of who started it, Simnet had extensive experience demeaning a competitor in print.  In March 1772, he deployed some of the same strategies that he used against Griffith a few years earlier.

Even though he could not resist placing negative advertisements about Yeoman, Simnet may have learned from his experience in New Hampshire that consumers did not respond well to marketing campaigns that revolved entirely around disparaging others.  In his next advertisement, published in the April 13, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he returned to the kinds of appeals that he incorporated into his notices when he first arrived in New York.  He gave prospective customers a careful accounting of how much they could expect to pay for various goods and services, such as “a new Chain Six Shillings” and “the Price of joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings.”  He also promoted his prices while offering a guarantee, stating that he set rates for “every particular Article in repairing, at HALF the Price charg’d by any other, and no future Expence while the Materials, that is, Wheels and Pinions will endure.”  Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.”  That may have been a subtle critique of his many competitors, but not a targeted attack on Yeoman or any other watchmaker in New York.  To draw customers to his shop, Simnet also offered “such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

Simnet has been a fascinating character to track over the past three years, in large part because he deviated so significantly from one of the standard advertising practices of the period.  He sometimes placed advertisements that vilified his rivals rather than focusing on his expertise and experience.  Yet Simnet did not always go negative.  He also published advertisements that incorporated the tone and appeals usually found in newspaper notices by artisans.  In some cases, he also crafted innovative appeals, including free services to entice prospective customers into his shop in hopes of establishing relationships with them.  As an advertiser, he covered a greater range of appeals, positive and negative, than just about anyone else marketing their goods and services in the colonies in the decade before the American Revolution.

March 19

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

New-York Journal (March 19, 1772).

“The manufacture he governs is 100 miles from real.”

It was probably only a matter of time before John Simnet, “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London,” engaged in a war of words with a competitor in New York.  In late 1768, he migrated to New Hampshire and began placing advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Over the next eighteen months, Simnet developed a rivalry with Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith, a watchmaker who already resided there.  The two waged a feud in their advertisements in the public prints, though Simnet was often more aggressive.  In a series of newspaper notices, the newcomer ridiculed his rival’s skill and intelligence before deciding to relocate to New York in the summer of 1770.  He occasionally published advertisements in his new city, but focused on promoting his own business rather than denigrating competitors.

That changed in March 1772.  In fairness to Simnet, another watchmaker, James Yeoman, seemed to start the dispute when he published an advertisement that seemed to critique the “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London.”  In an advertisement that first ran in the March 12 edition of the New-York Journal, Yeoman listed his credentials, stating that he “received his Instructions in the Business from the ingenious Mr. Neale, (whose great Knowledge in Mechanics was well known),” and declared that he “can with Propriety declare himself a real Manufacturer, having had the Government of a large Manufactory from its Infancy to its Maturity, one Hundred Miles from London.”  Yeoman cast doubt on Simnet’s description of his occupation and work in London.  As a further insult, he declared, “The above is not the Result of Vanity or Parade, for, should it be doubted, proper Testimonial shall be produced to prove the Assertion.”  Yeoman suggested that Simnet’s advertisements consisted of nothing more than puffery.

Perhaps the argument started before anything appeared in print.  Simnet and Yeoman may have exchanged words in person before Yeoman took to the pages of the New-York Journal.  Once Yeoman published his advertisement, Simnet responded in the next issue, updating a notice that previously ran for four weeks.  He doubled the length of his notice, starting with an introduction that instructed that “Persons who write in public on this art, where faith is be reposed, should consult their ability, and have strict regard to – not pull down truth.”  Sinnet did not mention Yeoman by name, but it was clear that his description of “Hocus Pocus” addressed the content of Yeoman’s advertisement.  In ridiculing an unnamed rival, Simnet remarked that the “manufacture he governs is 100 miles from real,” alluding to Yeoman’s claim that he managed “a large Manufactory … one Hundred Miles from London.”  Simnet also quoted Yeoman’s proclamation that he repaired clocks and watches “as cheap as by any Person in this City” in his own notice.  “As cheap as any person in this city,–can we save the value of a bowl of punch, or a turkey by reading that? –alas–No.”  He further underscored that “words are wind, and declare the expresser full of emptiness” before concluding with a poem that cast aspersions on Neale, Yeoman’s mentor.

No matter who started the dispute, Simnet and Yeoman took their argument to the public prints.  Simnet once again had a rival to denigrate in his advertisements.  Purveyors of goods and services rarely resorted to negative advertising, usually preferring to promote their own businesses and largely ignoring their competitors.  They often stated that they possessed the greatest skill or offered the lowest prices, but rarely did they directly critique or even address others who provided the same goods and services.  That made Simnet and Yeoman’s advertisements all the more notable and perhaps even entertaining for readers.

February 23

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

New-York Journal (February 20, 1772).

“Watches regulated, and such alterations which don’t require much time; gratis.”

For the past three years, the Adverts 250 Project has tracked newspaper advertisements placed by John Simnet, a “WATCH-FINISHER, and Manufacturer, of London,” first in the New-Hampshire Gazette during the period that he lived and worked in Portsmouth in 1769 and 1770 and then in newspapers published in New York after he migrated to that city.  Simnet often promoted his years of experience working in London in his advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette, but he also pursued a nasty public feud with one of his competitors.  That may have contributed to his decision to leave Portsmouth in favor of New York.

In a new city, Simnet adopted a much less aggressive approach in his advertising.  He deployed a variety of marketing strategies that did not focus on denigrating other watchmakers, though he did suggest that he possessed greater skill than any of his rivals.  In an advertisement that ran for the first time in the February 20, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal, for instance, he trumpeted that he “had more practice, and general knowledge on new work [the mechanisms in watches] than any yet in this country could have.”  Drawing on his long experience and superior expertise, he provided a service to anyone considering buying, selling, or repairing watches.  Simnet offered to examine watches and inform the owners or prospective buyers of “the first cost, or value of any new, or old watch.”  Once they knew the value of watches “with certainty,” they could make informed decisions about buying, selling, or repairing watches.

To generate business and enhance his reputation, Simnet also declared that he made “such alterations which don’t require much time; gratis.”  For those jobs that did involve more time and attention, he stated that he “will clean them, fit glasses, springs, inside chains; and perform every particular article in repairing, at half the price, charg’d by any other.”  Perhaps Simnet discovered that bargain prices brought more customers to his shop “At the Dial … beside the Coffee-House Bridge” than cantankerous diatribes that insulted his competitors.  In this advertisement, he focused on his own skill, asserting that customers could depend on his work keeping their watches in good order for quite some time instead of having them become “an annual or continual expence.”  Simnet attempted to leverage his skill and experience “To the Advantage of those who wear WATCHES” as well as his own benefit in earning a livelihood through providing various services.

December 5

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

New-York Journal (December 5, 1771).

“JOHN SIMNET, of London, WATCH-FINISHER.”

Nearly six months had passed since John Simnet last placed an advertisement in the New-York Journal, but he concluded the year by placing his notice in every issue published in December 1771.  Simnet, a veteran watchmaker with decades of experience working in shops in London, did not advertise in any of the newspapers published in New York nearly as often as he had advertised in the New-Hampshire Gazette when he ran a shop in Portsmouth for about eighteen months in 1769 and 1770.  A rivalry with another watchmaker, Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith, played an important part in Simnet aggressively taking to the public prints, frequently denigrating his competitor.  Readers may have been amused by the feud between Griffith and Simnet that played out before their eyes in the New-Hampshire Gazette, though Simnet may have alienated as many prospective customers as he gained since his advertisements were often significantly more mean-spirited than those placed by Griffith.

Simnet did not even mention his time in Portsmouth after he relocated from the smaller town to the bustling port of New York.  He presented himself as “JOHN SIMNET, of London, WATCH-FINISHER,” choosing not to acknowledge that he passed through New Hampshire.  He adopted a more evenhanded tone in his advertisements in the New-York Journal, though he could not resist the temptation to make a blanket statement about “Watch-Butchers” who further damaged rather than repaired watches customers entrusted to their care when he advertised in the summer of 1771.  He eschewed such attacks when he once again ran notices in December.  He trumpeted, however, that he was the “only general Manufacturer in this Country,” dismissing the training, skill, and experience of his competitors.  Despite that interlude near the end of his advertisement, Simnet focused most of his effort on positive appeals.  He emphasized price, addressing his notice “to “those who desire to preserve their Money and their WATCHES, And avoid unnecessary Expence.”  He listed prices for some of his services, reporting that he performed “All other Repairs in Proportion, at half what is usually charged.”  The watchmaker also declared that he completed difficult jobs quickly.  Simnet may have learned that such strategies served him better than the antagonistic approach he took to marketing during the time he resided in New Hampshire.

June 27

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

New-York Journal (June 27, 1771).

“Work that has been damag’d by Watch-Butchers, repair’d.”

For more than a year, starting in the winter of 1769 and continuing well into the summer of 1770, watchmakers John Simnet and Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith engaged in a public feud in the advertisements they placed in the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Simnet promoted his decades of experience working in London, claiming that Griffith lacked both skill and expertise.  Repairs undertaken by Griffith, according to Simnet, amounted to even greater damage that customers then sought out Simnet to fix.  In turn, Griffith accused the newcomer of being an itinerant just as likely to abscond with watches as repair them.  The quarrel between the two watchmakers ended only when Simnet relocated to New York.

Throughout their exchanges in the New-Hampshire Gazette, Simnet usually seemed more aggressive than Griffith, often picking a fight and daring his rival to respond.  Griffith sometimes did, but on other occasions he refused to take the bait.  Instead, he placed advertisements that focused on his own work.  When Simnet moved to New York, he inserted advertisements in local newspapers, but he did not immediately return to the strategy he deployed in New Hampshire.  Eventually, however, the cantankerous watchmaker could not resist.  Ten months after he first advertised in the New-York Journal, he placed a new notice that offered commentary on the skill of other watchmakers without singling out any particular competitor for abuse.  “THE Faults of the original Makers alter’d,” Simnet proclaimed.  “Work that has been damag’d by Watch-Butchers, repaired.”  He once again invoked his extensive experience, “thirty Years Finisher, to the Chief Manufacture in London,” but only after grabbing attention with his indictment of other watchmakers.

Artisans frequently highlighted their training, skill, and experience in their advertisements, intending to demonstrate their competence to prospective customers.  Very few denigrated their competitors, especially not in the colorful language that became a staple for Simnet in his advertisements.  Did Simnet return to this strategy after working in New York for nearly a year because he considered it effective in drumming up business?  Or did he have a prickly personality and could not resist creating a spectacle in his newspaper notices?  It very well may have been some of each.

August 31

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

Aug 31 - 8:31:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (August 31, 1770).

“Watches will be well repaired, Clocks put in good Order.”

It was the first advertisement that watchmaker Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith placed in the New-Hampshire Gazette in more than two months.  On the last day of August 1770, he inserted a brief notice stating that he “HEREBY informs the Public, that he has removed to s Shop between the two Taverns, Foss and Tiltons, where Watches will be well repaired, Clocks put in good Order, in the best Manner.”  Griffith struck a different tone in this advertisement than the last one he published.  Previously, he devoted a much longer advertisement to insulting competitor and rival watchmaker John Simnet, who was “as great a Watch-Maker as he is a Mountebank,” according to Griffith.  In turn, Simnet placed a trio of advertisements that pilloried Griffith.  Those notices went unanswered.

Griffith did not return to the public prints while Simnet remained in New Hampshire.  Perhaps he knew that his cantankerous rival planned to call it quits in Portsmouth and relocate to New York.  If that was the case, Griffith may not have considered it worth his effort to prolong a feud with a competitor who was headed out of town, even one who had been as abusive as Simnet had been during the eighteen months that he worked in New Hampshire and placed advertisements in the local newspaper.  Indeed, Simnet began advertising in the New-York Journal a week before Griffith once again placed a notice in the New-Hampshire Gazette.

For Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, this meant less revenue generated from advertisements related to the conflict between Griffith and Simnet.  It also meant that they lost content that previously helped fill the pages and quite likely entertained readers who enjoyed watching the altercation between the watchmakers.  The last time Griffith and Simnet placed advertisements in the same edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, they conveniently appeared one after the other in order to better craft a narrative for readers.  Anyone who regularly read that newspaper would have already been familiar with the ongoing squabble that played itself in the public prints.  Life may have become more placid for Griffith after Simnet’s departure, but reading the New-Hampshire Gazette also became a little less interesting for anyone who enjoyed witnessing the bickering and creative taunts between the watchmakers.

August 23

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

Aug 23 - 8:23:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (August 23, 1770).

“WATCHES REPAIR’D by J. SIMNETT.”

Near the end of the summer of 1770, watchmaker John Simnet went quiet in the pages of the New-Hampshire Gazette.  In late June and early July, he placed a series of advertisements attacking his competitor and rival Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith.  That other watchmaker sometimes responded to Simnet’s taunts in the public prints, but he chose to leave the most recent tirade unanswered.  It seemed that Simnet had the last word in the New-Hampshire Gazette.

A very public feud that played out in a series of advertisements over the course of a year and a half in the New-Hampshire Gazette came to an end when Simnet relocated to New York and began placing advertisements for his services there.  His first advertisement in his new city ran in the August 23, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal.  In the largest font that appeared anywhere in the issue (including the masthead) he called attention to the “WATCHES” that he “REPAIR’D in a perfect and durable manner, with expedition, at an easy expence, and kept in good order, for 2s6 sterling per year.”

Simnet also gave his current location and described himself as an “original maker from London,” attempting to take advantage of the cachet associated with training and working in the largest city in the empire.  He did not mention that he had not arrived directly from London but had instead spent the last eighteen months in New Hampshire, nor did he proclaim that his skills were superior to those of any of his competitors in New York.  He frequently made such pronouncements in the New-Hampshire Gazette, targeting watchmakers in that colony in particular.  If prospective customers wished to assume that Simnet was indeed more skilled because he was “an original maker from London,” they were free to do so, but perhaps the sharp-tongued Simnet had learned a lesson during his interactions with Griffith in New Hampshire and opted to cultivate a different persona in the public prints in New York.  Only time would tell.  After all, his advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette initially took a neutral tone but became increasingly abusive toward another watchmaker over time.

July 13

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

Jul 13 - 7:13:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 13, 1770).

“WATCHES KEPT in REPAIR for Two Shillings and six pence Sterling per YEAR.”

John Simnet’s advertisement in the July 13, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette was uncharacteristically muted compared to others he had recently published.  The brief notice looked much like any other that an eighteenth-century watchmaker would insert in the local newspaper:  “WATCHES KEPT in REPAIR for Two Shillings and six pence Sterling per YEAR; Clean’d for those who desire them done cheap, for a Pistereen, and Repairs in Proportion.  By J. SIMNET:  Parade.”  Yet it differed in tone significantly from most of Simnet’s advertisements.  He arrived in the Portsmouth area in late 1768 or early 1769.  Over the past year and a half he engaged in a very public feud with Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith.  The rival watchmakers both advertised in the New-Hampshire Gazette, sometimes making only oblique references to each other but on other occasions leveling accusations of fraud, incompetence, and lack of character.  Most recently, Simnet ran advertisements that compared Griffith to a rat or denigrated his character and skills in verse.  Even after several weeks passed, Griffith did not respond to those attacks, at least not in the New-Hampshire Gazette.

Had it not been for this rivalry, I likely would not have selected Simnet’s advertisement to feature on the Adverts 250 Project today.  Uriah Hide of Lyme, Connecticut, placed a notice for “Clothiers Shears” made in the colonies in the New-London Gazette.  In that advertisement, he developed an argument in favor of giving preference to “the Manufactures of the Colony” over imported “European Manufactures.”  I often select advertisements that demonstrate the convergence of politics and consumer culture in the era of the American Revolution, but after spending eighteenth months following the feud between Griffith and Simnet I decided to include the next installment in their story in order to document each volley regardless of whether it was as explosive as the last.  It is also worth noting that Simnet’s advertisement appears deceptively simple, especially when compared to his other notices in the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Although brief, his advertisement included an appeal to price and even listed how much he charged for routine maintenance for a year.  Relatively few eighteenth-century advertisers included specific prices in their notices, making Simnet’s attempt to entice customers with a guaranteed price notable.  Not as lively as most of his advertisements, this one engaged with prospective customers in different ways.