March 18

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (March 16, 1772).

“Enquire of the printer.”

Printing offices were hubs for circulating information in colonial America, but not all of the information that passed through printing offices appeared in print.  Printers obtained and managed far more information than they could publish in newspapers and pamphlets or on broadside and handbills.  In addition, some of their customers gave instructions not to disseminate certain information in print.  As a result, printers received and wrote letters and engaged in conversations with colonizers who visited their printing offices.

Advertisements that appeared in colonial newspapers made clear that printers possessed much more information than fit on the page or that the advertisers wanted made public.  Hugh Gaine, the printer of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and printers throughout the colonies regularly published “enquire of the printer” advertisements that instructed readers interested in learning more details to contact the printing office.  In some cases, but not all, the names of the advertisers did not even appear.  Instead, advertisers often entrusted printers with the responsibility of an initial exchange with readers who responded to newspaper notices.

Printers have recently received attention for the role they played in perpetuating the slave trade by serving as brokers for “enquire of the printer” advertisements, but those were not the only instances of printers acting as agents on behalf of advertisers by disseminating additional information that did not appear in print.[1]  Consider some of the advertisements that Gaine published in the March 16, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  One offered for sale the “TAN-YARD belonging to the Estate of Mr. John Robbins … with the Utensils thereunto belonging.”  It advised readers to “apply to Mr. Abraham Mesier … or the Printer hereof” for particulars.  The employment advertisement that ran immediately below it instructed “a young lad” interested in assisting in “taking care of a large store, in a very agreeable part of the country, about 50 miles from this city” to “Enquire of the printer” for more details.  Gaine served as a local agent for an advertiser who resided some distance from New York.  In another advertisement, a local resident who “FOUND the case of a gold watch” let the owner know that they could claim it by “proving their property, and paying the charges of this advertisement, by applying to the printer.”

Gaine managed the flow of information through his printing office at the Bible and Crown in Hanover Square in New York in the 1770s.  He often acted as an agent or broker on behalf of advertisers, supplying additional information that did not appear in newspaper notices to colonizers who heeded the instruction to “enquire of the printer.”  From real estate deals to employment opportunities to lost and found items to enslaved people for sale, printers throughout the colonies often assumed responsibilities beyond printing notices in newspapers.

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[1] For printers’ role in perpetuating the slave trade, see Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer:  Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies:  An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323.

July 25

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

Maryland Gazette (July 25, 1771).

“Sundry Books, on Painting, and a Number Prints being sent him.”

Colonists placed newspaper advertisements for a variety of purposes.  Some aimed to incite demand for consumer goods and services.  Others published legal notices or called on customers to settle accounts.  Enslavers offered Africans and African Americans for sale or offered rewards for the capture and return of Black people who liberated themselves by running away.  Aggrieved husbands warned against extending credit to recalcitrant wives.  Clubs informed members of upcoming meetings.  A good number of advertisements concerned lost or stray livestock.  Colonists also inserted other sorts of lost-and-found notices.

When a shipment of “sundry Books, on Painting, and a Number of Prints” from England got misdirected in the summer of 1771, Charles Willson Peale ran an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette, hoping that “Any Gentleman” among the readers who had come into possession of his books and prints would forward them to him or inform him so he could make arrangements to collect them.  He promised that anyone who helped him acquire the missing items “shall be well rewarded for his Trouble.”  Peale had “received Letters” alerting him about the books and prints “being sent him, but by what Ship, or to what Part of Virginia or Maryland they were sent, he is totally at a Loss to find out.”  When he placed the advertisement, Peale was simultaneously frustrated and hopeful.

At the time, Peale had already gained some renown as a painter having studied under John Singleton Copley in the colonies and, for three years, under Benjamin West in England.  He eventually became one of the most influential American painters of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, known especially for his portraits of prominent leaders now remembered as founders of the nation.  A naturalist and inventor in addition to an artist, Peale established one of the first American museums.  He often harnessed these endeavors to promoting the new nation.  Today, historians and other scholars recognize and continue to examine his contributions to early American politics and culture.

That distinguishes Peale from most of the other colonists who placed advertisements or who were the subjects of advertisements in the Maryland Gazette.  For good reason, the name “CHARLES W. PEALE” at the end of his advertisement draws the attention of modern readers familiar with the era of the American Revolution.  Yet that advertisement by a notable historical figure tells only one story among the many significant narratives contained within advertisements that ran in the same issue, a story in many ways less important than others despite the famous name attached to it.  William Rooke’s advertisement for “a great Variety of GOODS,” for instance, testifies to the consumer revolution that played an important role in colonists participating in politics through their decisions in the marketplace.  Thomas Gassaway Howard’s advertisement offering a reward for the capture and return of “a Negro Man named Harry” demonstrates the tension between liberty and enslavement present at the founding of the nation.  Colonists of all sorts, elites and the lower sorts, enslaved and free, made history in the eighteenth century.  In the twenty-first century, we have a duty to examine their many different stories and incorporate their diverse experiences and perspectives into a more complete narrative of the past.

May 12

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (May 9, 1771).

“If offered for sale … it’s desir’d it may be stopt, and Advice given … by publishing it in the Papers.”

Lost and found advertisements regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers.  Colonists sought to harness the power of the press in recovering garments, documents, currency, jewelry, and a variety of other items that they misplaced, dropped, or inadvertently left behind.  The watchmakers Asby and McLain published an advertisement concerning “A Gold Watch lost” on the evening of April 20, 1771, hoping that readers of the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter would assist in returning it.  To that end, they offered “TWENTY DOLLARS Reward.”

The watch went missing “between the Town-House and Draw-Bridge in Boston,” but Asby and McLain widened the search.  They realized that whoever might find the watch would not necessarily seek its owner but instead keep it or attempt to sell it.  The watchmakers enlisted the assistance of “Master of Vessels,” requesting that they observe their crew to see “if such a Watch should appear to be in Possession of any of the Sailors on board.”  Asby and McLain left discipline to captains, advising they either confiscate the watch or pay the reward “as they shall think proper” under the circumstances.  Anticipating the possibility that the watch might be “offered for sale in Boston, or in any Town upon the Continent,” the watchmakers asked that the watch “may be stopt” or confiscated and “Advice given … by publishing it in the Papers, that either of them may know w[h]ere to apply and pay the Reward.”

In giving those instructions, Asby and McLain suggested that newspapers would continue to play a role in their search for the watch beyond publishing their own advertisement.  They expected readers in Boston and other places to take note, testifying to the dissemination and reach of newspapers in the era of the American Revolution.  The watchmakers also suggested that they would scan the newspapers for an advertisement placed in response to their notice.  Even though they gave their location and anyone who found or confiscated the watch could communicate with them directly, Asby and McLain depended on the public prints as an alternative.

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.