October 29

GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts

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

oct-29-10291766-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (October 29, 1766).

“A PARCEL of TANNED SOLE LEATHER.”

I chose this advertisement because it dealt with a material whose impact on society I did not know a lot about overall: leather. This short advertisement attempted to sell “A PARCEL of TANNED SOLE LEATHER.” I did realize that throughout history leather played a role, but did not fully understand its importance in the colonial world. Obviously there was demand for it. But why was leather in demand? I engaged in some research to find out more about it. According to Colonial Williamsburg, leather was used for myriad of items: equestrian equipment, fashion items and storage products. It even was used for luxury items like “ fur and leather hand muffs” and “razor cases.”

The importance of equipment used in harnessing horses cannot be overstated. During the colonial period the primary mode of travel, other than walking, was horseback or a horse drawn vehicle. There would have been thousands of colonists using horses to travel across towns or colonies. None of that travel would have been possible without bridles, saddles, harnesses, and other leather goods. That is one of the main reasons leather was a commodity that was worth selling. It was a necessary component of colonial travel, as well as a resource used in fashion. A colonist reading this advertisement would have recognized the value of leather goods.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Megan has selected an advertisement that differs from many other advertisements for consumer goods and services in one significant aspect: “MATT. ROCHE, Prov. Mar.” signed this notice. Roche was not a producer, supplier, or retailer. Instead, he was a local official, a provost marshal (a law enforcement officer roughly equivalent to a sheriff). As part of their own institutional history, the U.S. Marshals Service states that “as soon as the colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, the office of provost marshal was established.” Other colonies, including Virginia, also had provost marshals. Their duties included collecting fines, apprehending and transporting criminals, and, most significantly for the purposes of understanding this advertisement, “taking inventory of a deceased person’s estate.”

Roche did not seek to sell his own goods or make a profit from transactions with customers. That was not his way of earning a living. Instead, in his official capacity he participated in settling the estate of “the late Mr. William Smith.” Note that Roche did not have his own shop, auction house, or warehouse for dispersing the “PARCEL of TANNED SOLE LEATHER.” Instead, those interested in purchasing this commodity needed to seek it out at “Joseph Pruniere’s store adjoining his house.” Notice as well that Roche did not announce an ongoing sale. The “PARCEL” had been divided into lots that were to be sold on a specific date (“Tuesday the 4th of November, 1766”) at a specific place. This was an auction intended to quickly and efficiently liquidate the deceased Smith’s inventory of sole leather in order to move forward with settling his estate. Roche inserted an announcement of the sale in the Georgia Gazette, but he did not attempt to incite demand by resorting to any particular appeals to entice buyers, unlike shopkeepers whose livelihoods depended on attracting customers.

Most likely many colonists eventually wore shoes constructed from this “PARCEL of TANNED SOLE LEATHER,” but the path from producer to consumer took unanticipated turns along the way.

April 11

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

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

Apr 11 - 4:11:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (April 11, 1766).

“Jam. & Mat. Haslet, Leather Dressers from Boston.”

This advertisement showcases the opening of a leatherwork “Factory” in Portsmouth that would sell leather products (wholesale to shop owners or retail to consumers) by James and Mathew Haslet, who were “Leather Dressers.” In colonial America, a leather dresser was a tradesman who spent the workday obtaining and then tanning various animal hides (this advertisement mentions deer and moose). These hides would be used to craft various items, including gloves and breeches, as the advertisement mentions. Other items that were crafted from leather mainly consisted of shoes, saddlebags, and belts. It should be noted that shoes were actually put together by tradesmen known as cobblers.

Many tradesmen who were leather dressers actually left England and migrated to the thirteen colonies to provide leather goods and leather dressing services to the inhabitants of the colonies. Unlike in colonial days, in today’s society, products made to imitate leather are actually more commonly found in American homes than are authentic leather products. Of course, imitation leather was not available to the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, which meant that the toiling process and expertise associated with leather dressing made tradesmen with these skills a necessary part of society.

For more information on leather workers, especially in colonial Virginia, check out this research report from the Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

The Haslets mentioned gloves twice in their advertisement: “Buckskin and Sheepskin Gloves” and “The neatest Mode Gloves for Funerals.” In so doing, they suggest that the former were intended for everyday use but the latter were reserved for the rituals of mourning the dead.

What may not be apparent to modern readers was that “Gloves for Funerals” were intended for the living, not for the deceased. Although the practice declined after the Revolution, in colonial New England families distributed gloves to mourners who attended the funerals of their loved ones. For families from more humble backgrounds this usually meant giving away a handful (pun intended!) of gloves, but wealthier families sometimes distributed hundreds of pairs of gloves. This ritual occurred only occasionally at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it became a common and expected part of funerals by the 1760s. Elite families distributed funeral gloves to acknowledge their relationships with each other, but also to demonstrate their commitment to the communities of which they were part.

Distributing funeral gloves became a status symbol by the end of the colonial period. It also became a competition and a form of conspicuous consumption that sometimes garnered criticism as an inappropriate expression of luxury. After the Revolution, large-scale glove-giving declined as elites and others forged new relationships as new rhetoric of egalitarianism emerged. Today, the practice of giving away funeral gloves to mourners is little more than a distant memory of our colonial past, not a standard part of our funeral rituals.

For a more extensive examination of funeral gloves, I recommend: Steven C. Bullock and Sheila McIntyre, “The Handsome Tokens of a Funeral: Glove-Giving and the Large Funeral in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 69, no. 2 (April 2012): 305-346.