What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Still believing the former Piece to be more agreeable to Truth than the latter.”
When Joseph Symonds, Joseph Hobbs, and Joseph Hobbs, Jr., placed an advertisement in the August 28, 1770, edition of the Essex Gazette, they depended on readers being familiar with a series of advertisements that previously appeared in that newspaper. In the first, Addison Richardson accused “an Apprentice Lad, named Samuel Hobbs” of running away and taking a box “containing sundry Articles of Cloathing.” Richardson had already recovered the box. He warned others “to be very cautious in having any Concern” with the apprentice.
In an unusual turn of events, Hobbs placed his own advertisement to respond. Usually runaways either did not have the resources to respond in print or chose not to draw additional attention to themselves by doing so. Hobbs, however, sought to set the record straight, declaring that he “was not bound” to Richardson or “under any Obligation to live with him any longer than we could agree,” that the box and most of its contents did not belong to Richardson, and that his purported master had not treated him well during “almost five Years Service.” Symonds, Hobbs, and Hobbs, all relations of the alleged runaway, signed a short addendum stating that they believed the young man’s account to be “real Truth” and encouraged that “the Publick will take no Notice.”
In turn, Richardson published yet another advertisement, this time masquerading as “SA——EL H—BBS.” That notice paralleled the format of the one placed by Hobbs, offering an alternate version of events that corrected what Richardson considered inaccuracies in the clarifications that Hobbs offered the public. Richardson-as-H—BBS also pointed out that “two Uncles and a Brother” of the apprentice might not be the most reliable witnesses in the dispute. In order to continue the parallel format, he concluded the advertisement with a short declaration about having “Reason to believe the Piece above to be real Truth” and signed it “A. RICHARDSON.”
Two weeks later, Symonds, Hobbs, and Hobbs placed an advertisement of their own accord. Just in case any readers were confused about whether Samuel Hobbs was responsible for the notice signed by SA——EL H—BBS, they proclaimed that it “was not put in by him, for he did not know any Thing of it.” They also reported that some accommodation had been reached: Mr. Richardson hath returned the Box, with what was in it, and offered to cloath [Hobbs] honorably if he will come and live with him again.” Seeing this as a satisfactory outcome, the uncles and brother decided to “forbear, and say no more,” though they opined that Richardson would “be very cautious how he advertises Runaways for the future.” As a parting shot, they stated that the advertisement by the real Hobbs was “more agreeable to Truth” than the one by Richardson-as-H—BBS, “and not merely because the Boy told us so neither.” Even after accommodation had been reached, these three men sought to clarify which version of events was more accurate.
Buying space in the local newspaper gave Richardson, Hobbs, and Hobbs’s relations opportunities to shape the narrative of what transpired between master and apprentice in the summer of 1770. Rather than working out their disagreements among themselves, they put their dispute on display before the general public, each attempting to convince the community that they were in the right and someone else behaved poorly. These advertisements amplified gossip and word-of-mouth reports of the discord between Hobbs and Richardson.