April 20

GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff

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

Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 20, 1769).

LOST … A Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold.”

On April 20, 1769, the Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter contained this advertisement for a lost “Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold, and with a gold Chain.” I was interested in this piece of jewelry. According to Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee, “Although carelessness, loss by theft, and general wear and tear have taken a heavy toll on colonial jewelry so that comparatively small amount is still extant, portraits of well-to-do citizens and their families from Puritan-founded New England to South Carolina and newspaper advertisements of colonial goldsmiths show that jewelry of all sorts was in high favor. In fact, it was a natural accessory to the elaborate satin and brocaded costumes affected by both men and women of substance and social standing.” Who made the jewelry that colonists owned? “Some of this jewelry was imported; much was made by the various gold and silversmiths of the colonies.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

For the purposes of this project, Matt selected an especially interesting source to support his analysis of today’s featured advertisement. In a “Flashback” article published online in March 2009, Collectors Weekly republished Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee’s two-part series on “Colonial Americans and Their Jewelry” originally published in the March and April 1941 issues of American Collector magazine. As the twenty-first-century editors explain, “This article discusses the various types of fine jewelry that was popular among 18th-century Americans, using advertisements written by jewelers and notices written by Americans who had lost previous pieces as examples.” The advertisements for the lost “Stone Sleeve Button with a red Cypher set in Gold, and with a gold Chain” falls in the latter category. Matt selected an article that demonstrates how multiple advertisements can provide a revealing overview of the history of a particular product in early America when considered collectively.

That article also references other sorts of advertisements from eighteenth-century newspapers. Ormsbee declares that items created and sold by jewelers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths were “evidently as tempting to the ‘have-nots’ of that time as [they are] today, for news items about robberies were fairly numerous.” He then tells the story of a Boston goldsmith who inserted an advertisement in the March 21, 1765, edition of the Boston News-Letter to list the jewelry stolen from his shop and offer a reward. The Boston-Gazette later reported that the thief had been caught and punished with “40 stripes at the public Whipping Post,” but did not indicate whether the goldsmith recovered his merchandise. Although the anonymous colonist who placed today’s featured advertisement described the jewelry as “LOST” rather than stolen, he or she did worry that anyone who found it might attempt to sell it rather than return it to its rightful owner. “If offer’d to Sale,” the advertiser pleaded, “it is desired it may be stop’d.” In other words, confiscate the jewelry and inform the printer to contact the advertiser that the lost jewelry had been recovered.

Ormsbee’s two-part series about eighteenth-century advertisements for jewelry is a lively read that includes images of both jewelry and portraits of colonists wearing their precious possessions. Alas, the article does not include images of the advertisements, privileging images of material culture over the print culture that provides important context for understanding the significance of jewelry in colonial American commerce and culture.

January 4

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

jan-4-131767-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (January 3, 1767).

“FOUND … a Silver Knee Buckle.”

Lost and found notices frequently appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers. Colonists not only purchased consumer goods; they sometimes misplaced their possessions and placed advertisements in hopes of reclaiming them. Colonists who found lost items also sometimes helped to reunite them with their owners. Such was the case in today’s advertisement: Elihu Robinson announced that he had “FOUND” a silver knee buckle “in the Main Street, Providence,” a week earlier on December 27. He wanted to return it to its owner, but only once the owner paid “the Charge of advertising.”

That would have been the extent of most lost and found notices, but Robinson opted to add a few lines about the business he operated. He reminded former customers “and the Public in general” that he made “Beaver, Beaveret, and Felt Hats” at his shop. In the process, he incorporated an appeal to price, stating that he was “determined to sell as cheap for Cash, as any in Boston, New-York, or any Person in this Town.” In so doing, he followed a recent trend in advertisements published in the Providence Gazette by expressing concern that too many local consumers purchased their goods from shopkeepers, artisans, and suppliers in other urban ports in the region, especially the larger and more bustling cities of Boston and New York. In another advertisement in the same issue, shopkeeper James Green pledged that he sold his merchandise “at as low a rate as can be bought in this town, or any of the neighbouring governments.” More so than in any other colony, advertisers in Rhode Island encouraged prospective customers to shop locally.

Robinson’s advertisement may appear disjointed at first glance. The headline in a larger font, “FOUND,” described a silver knee buckle, but most of the advertisement promoted the hats Robinson made and sold at his shop and promises about low prices. Although seemingly unrelated, the lost-and-found notice served an important purpose. Robinson signaled to customers that they could trust his claims about offering lower prices than anywhere else in Providence or other cities because he was such an honest man that he attempted to return a silver knee buckle that he found in the street to its rightful owner. Many eighteenth-century advertisers assured readers about the quality of their character. Elihu Robinson provided a practical demonstration. Customers could trust him.