February 20

GUEST CURATOR:  Blue Gabriel

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

Massachusetts Spy (February 20, 1772).

“All sorts of Mathematical Instruments are made and repaired by the above WILLIAMS.”

As I read through all of the newspapers for my week as guest curator, I aw advertisements for perishable goods or clothing items such as linens and other fabrics. This advertisement for “MATHEMATICAL INSTRUMENTS” caught my eye because it was so different. I became more and more interested in in this “Mathematical Instrument Maker” and his life during the eighteenth century.

William Williams started making and repairing mathematical instruments and clocks in 1770, according to Silvio A. Bedini. His shop was called “The Little Admiral” because of a carved figure that marked its location. Bedini notes that Williams served in the American Revolution “as a private in Captain Mills’ company, of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin’s regiment of artificers, during the years 1777-1779.  In 1780 he served in Captain Pattin’s company of General Knox’s artillery, which was stationed at West Point.”[1]

In addition to the mathematical instruments that he made and sold, Williams also sold general goods such as “Journal Books, Ink-powder, Quills and Paper, … and plated Shoe and Knee Buckles.” The nonimportation agreement adopted by the town of Boston on August 1, 1768, restricted importing British goods in response to the duties that Parliament placed on some goods. When the nonimportation agreement ended, Williams sold imported goods.  Shopkeepers, artisans, and other colonists wanted to participate in the consumer revolution.



One of my favorite parts of inviting students in my classes to serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project is seeing which advertisements they select, what part of each advertisement they choose to research in greater detail, and the sources they consult in their research.  Blue decided to focus on the biography of the advertiser, William Williams, just as Dillon Escandon did in an advertisement placed by Henry Knox, a bookseller, featured on the Adverts 250 Project a week ago.  Williams and Knox may have crossed paths in Boston prior to the American Revolution.  Blue determined that they did indeed have a connection at West Point in 1780.

Between them, Blue and Dillon researched three people mentioned in their advertisements:  Henry Knox, William Williams, and Captain Cazneau.  Their research yielded some interesting insights about how much we can learn about the advertisers whose names appeared in the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers.  Dillon had little difficulty finding information about Henry Knox, a bookseller who became a prominent general in the Continental Army and the first Secretary of War after the American Revolution.  It took a bit more work for Blue to locate biographical information about William Williams, the mathematical instrument maker.  Their research led them to a bulletin about Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers written by Silvio A. Bedini, curator of mechanical and civil engineering at the Smithsonian Institution, and published in 1964.  Williams was one of just over a dozen instrument makers with brief biographies in Bedini’s bulletin.  That bulletin is now available via Project Gutenberg.  Captain Cazneau was the most elusive of the people mentioned in the advertisements Blue and Dillon examined.  Dillon managed to find references to the captain in correspondence between Thomas Digges and John Adams, but very little information compared to what Bedini’s bulletin provided about Williams.  The National Archives provided access to a transcription of the letter from Digges to Adams.

Between them, Blue and Dillon demonstrated the possible outcomes of researching eighteenth-century advertisers and the people mentioned in their newspaper notices.  For some of them who achieved fame or influence, including Henry Knox, historians and scholars have already compiled extensive biographies.  Others, like Captain Cazneau, remain obscure.  Even with painstaking research, it may not be possible to recover significantly more information about Cazneau.  William Williams falls somewhere in the middle.  An historian and curator consulted a variety of primary sources, including multiple newspaper advertisements, to piece together a brief biography.  From my perspective as the instructor for Blue and Dillon’s Revolutionary America class, that may have been the most interesting case because Bedini succinctly demonstrated both how much we can learn about this mathematical instrument maker and how many different kinds of primary sources contributed to the biography he constructed.


[1] Silvio A. Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1964), 95.