What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A GRAND CONCERT of VOCAL and INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC.”
Music was popular in colonial America, just like it is today. In April 1769 “A GENTLEMAN from LONDON” performed a “GRAND CONCERT” in Boston. What kind of music did colonists hear? David K. Hildebrand lists four categories: theater music, dance music, church music, and military music. In early America, colonists heard “ballads, dance tunes, folk songs and parodies, comic opera arias, drum signals, psalms, minuets, and sonatas.” Which instruments were present in eighteenth-century America? Hilbebrand says that violins (fiddles) and flutes were the most popular, “[d]rums and trumpets, trombones and French horns, cellos, violas da gamba, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, glass armonicas, hammered dulcimers, [and] organs” were all played in the colonies, “in varying numbers. Women did not usually play these instruments. Hildebrand states, “A very tight self-regulation of activity in the name of ‘maintaining reputation’ limited musical options for women.” Wealthy women played harpsichords and English guitars. To learn more, visit “What was Colonial or ‘Early American’ Music?”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The promoters of a “GRAND CONCERT of VOCAL and INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC” scheduled for April 14, 1769, did not confine their marketing efforts to the pages of the Boston Chronicle. On the same day, that this advertisement ran in that newspaper it also appeared in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette, increasing the number of readers and prospective patrons that would encounter it and consider attending.
These advertisements demonstrate an important aspect of the division of labor and creative input in early American advertising: advertisers generated copy and compositors determined the design elements. The copy in each iteration of the “GRAND CONCERT” advertisement remained constant, suggesting that the advertiser wrote the text, copied it several times, and submitted those copies to the various printing offices around Boston. The compositors then exercised their own discretion concerning how the advertisement looked on the page when they set the type. The version in the Boston Chronicle, for instance, announced a “GRAND CONCERT,” putting those words in all capitals and a font larger than almost everything else in the advertisement. “MUSIC” appeared in the largest font, making it the focal point of the advertisement. In contrast, “Grand Concert,” this time not in all capitals, was in the smallest font used in the advertisement in the Boston-Gazette. There, “Mr. HARTLEY” and “Vocal and Instrumental Musick” appeared in the largest font. The compositor for the Boston Evening-Post adopted yet another strategy, making “A grand CONCERT” the most prominent words in the advertisement. Other variations included different uses of italics and capitalization elsewhere in the advertisements as well as a manicule that appeared in the Boston Chronicle but not in the other two newspapers.
This division was not a hard and fast rule. On occasion, similarities in graphic design in multiple newspapers suggested that advertisers provided instructions or negotiated for particular design elements, but generally they did not. Much more often, compositors made copy submitted by advertisers conform to their own graphic design preferences, creating advertisements from multiple advertisers within a single publication that looked more similar to each other than advertisements from a single advertiser in multiple newspapers. In other words, the visual qualities of an advertisement depended greatly on which compositor set the type and which newspaper published that advertisement.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A HARPSICHORD, completely fitted, Maker’s Name (Mahoon, London:).”
This brief advertisement offered a harpsichord for sale. Harpsichords are often referred to as the “predecessor” of the piano. When Romance music started to come about at the beginning of the nineteenth century, everyone started to move over to pianos. This was due to the fact that pianos were more expressive and had more dynamics. This became even more true when Beethoven started working with piano builders in the early nineteenth century to make louder pianos before he went completely deaf. One of the main drawbacks to the harpsichord, that the piano did not have, was that no matter how softly or forcefully a musician pushed down on a key of a harpsichord the volume rang with the same amount of sound at all times.
During the eighteenth century many of the wealthy and elite had a harpsichord in their homes for entertainment. Ed Crews writes that “harpsichords were expensive in Great Britain and its North American colonies. During the 1700s … most harpsichords in America were made in Great Britain. Because of the cost, the instrument was a status symbol. The powerful, the refined, and the wealthy made sure they had one in their homes.” The harpsichord in this advertisement was made in London. Poorer colonists sometimes learn to sing in church or learned to play instruments that were less costly and of lower overall quality compared to the harpsichords owned by their wealthier counterparts.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Working with undergraduate guest curators sometimes offers a brief respite from examining the featured advertisements in favor of reflecting on pedagogy. All of the guest curators currently working on the Adverts 250 Project are currently enrolled in my upper-lever Revolutionary America, 1763-1815, course at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. As long as they abide by the methodology for the project they may examine whichever advertisements they wish. However, as project manager I reserve the right to review and approve all advertisements included in the project. I encourage guest curators to submit their proposed advertisements for approval before they conduct further research or begin writing about them.
This results in guest curators frequently choosing advertisements that I would not have considered or passing over advertisements that I would like to include in the project. When Sean presented this exceptionally brief advertisement for my consideration I initially attempted to wave him off of it and on to another advertisement. I thought that it might be a difficult choice for someone working as a guest curator for the first time. As an alternative I directed him to an advertisement in the same column of the March 23, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal, a subscription notice for printing “AN HISTORICAL JOURNAL OF THE CAMPAIGNS IN NORTH AMERICA, For the Years 1757, 8, 9, and 60 … By CAPTAIN JOHN KNOX.” We covered the Seven Years War at the beginning of the semester, so I reasoned that Sean could readily make connections between course content and that advertisement.
Sean, however, explained that he had intentionally chosen the advertisement about the harpsichord. As a Music minor, he previously enrolled in a course that examined the history of music. He wanted to draw together material from classes in different disciplines. Once I heard Sean’s explanation I enthusiastically approved the advertisement for the harpsichord. His choice achieved one of my goals for incorporating undergraduate guest curators into the project to fulfill the requirements of my Revolutionary America course: challenging students to consider connections between the material they encounter in my class and what they have learned in other History courses and classes offered by other departments. In addition, Sean demonstrated another point that I make to guest curators when we first discuss the project. The advertisement for the harpsichord was deceptively brief. At the beginning of the semester most of Sean’s peers may have passed over it, questioning its significance. Yet Sean used it to tell a robust story about entertainment, status, and changing technologies in the era of the American Revolution.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend “Ballads from Boston: Music from the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Collection,” an interactive performance and lecture by David and Ginger Hildebrand from the Colonial Music Institute. I was especially interested in this concert (part of the American Antiquarian Society’s slate of Spring 2016 Public Programs, free and open to the public) because I have worked with digital humanities curator Molly O’Hagan Hardy on other aspects of the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project. In particular, my students from Assumption College have participated in transcribing about two dozen of the ballads to make them keyword searchable and thus more accessible to both scholars and general audiences. This collaborative community service learning project began last fall in my Revolutionary America course and continued this spring in my Public History course and an independent study for a student completing a capstone research project for the Peace and Conflict Studies minor.
My students and I take some pride in helping to make the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project more accessible to multiple audiences, but the work we have done differs significantly from the way in which David and Ginger Hildebrand have made these early-nineteenth-century ballads accessible. In addition to their performance last Friday, they have recorded approximately thirty of the ballads, which are now available on the Broadside Ballads website. In my view, this transforms the entire project. As a scholar, I have approached the ballads from a print culture perspective, but the Hildebrands underscore that these broadsides were not just material texts. Those words on the page were meant to be sung aloud and heard by early Americans. They had melodies that would have been readily recognized, even if the words were not familiar. They were part of the soundscape of Boston and other cities and villages in the early nineteenth century. I’ve noticed in recent years that historians and scholars in related disciplines have increasingly consulted graphic arts materials in efforts to better recover and represent what America looked like in eras before photography. Except for musicologists, we have not (yet) given the same attention to what early America sounded like at various times before recording technology. The work undertaken by the Hildebrands helps to remedy that.
As for the concert, the Hildebrands selected seventeen ballads to perform, though they did not move directly from one to the next. Instead, they offered remarks, context, and explanations for each of their selections before performing each on period instruments (including a harpsichord, a hammered dulcimer, and a violin), while dressed in period clothing. (This was a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears.) They provided background about historical events mentioned in the lyrics and traced the origins of many of the melodies. Many of the ballads had twenty or more verses, so they judiciously selected the most important for telling a story or giving the audience a taste.
Many of the melodies continue to be popular (or at least recognizable) today, but most dated back earlier than the nineteenth century. The Hildebrands explained that the best way for a new song to become popular was to set it to a familiar tune that most people already knew. In that way, melodies had lives of their own that extended across years, decades, and even centuries. Sometimes they were updated or adapted, but they were transmitted largely intact across generations. Performers added their own touches, but these usually amounted to variations on standardized melodies. The Hildebrands described this as honoring melodies again and again because everybody knew them (and certainly not plagiarizing them in the way we might assume for similar practices today). This reminded me of the common practice among printers of reprinting material directly from other newspapers in their own publications. Our concept of “stealing” the intellectual and creative labor of others has shifted in the two centuries since the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads were printed. (This does leave me with several questions about copyright in the early nineteenth century.)
While the melodies had variations, so did the lyrics. I was not the only scholar who had my laptop open so I could follow along with the original ballads via the Broadside Ballads website as the Hildebrands performed them. I noticed that they sometimes made minor changes to the lyrics. Although the Hildrebrands did not indicate this was the case, I imagine that the men and women who sang these ballads in the early nineteenth century would have done the same. The lyrics offered a general outline for any particular song, but the preferences and creativity of performers further shaped them. I imagine that regional differences may have emerged as well, much like modern summer campers have very similar repertories for singing in dining halls and around campfires. The words and melodies are largely the same, but small differences create distinct performances from camp to camp. I found this helpful when thinking about the aural aspects of the ballads. From a print culture perspective I am very conscious to quote each ballad exactly as it appeared on the page (and require students to do so when transcribing them, down to misspellings and missing letters), but the lyrics, like the melodies, were likely altered to suit the tastes of the performers in the nineteenth century, just as the Hildebrands play with the lyrics today.
Given that this project was created to explore advertising, marketing, and consumer culture in early America, I must include the final stanza of “The Times.”
So here’s a true song for them that will buy,
And I’ll leave it to yourselves if I’ve told you a lie,
The like of my song you have not heard many,
The price is but small, you may have one for a penny.
The Hildebrands explained that even though Isaiah Thomas made arrangements with Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly to purchase all of the ballads that came off the press in his shop, most ballads were either sold by booksellers or peddled in the streets. These “verses in vogue with the vulgar,” as Thomas described them, were the popular culture of the day. Peddlers called attention to their wares by singing the ballads, not just announcing that they had them for sale. In fact, some melodies familiar today are vestiges of songs street peddlers sang in London three centuries ago. In the final verse of “The Times” the man or woman hawking the ballads on the street did what is today called “breaking the fourth wall” by departing from the story being told in order to engage and interact with the audience. Passersby had benefited from a few moments of free entertainment. What better way to show their appreciation – and continue to derive pleasure from the ballad – than by purchasing one of their own for just a penny?
From the very first ballad, “The Frog and Mouse,” I found myself tapping my foot. For others, especially “How the Glass Stands” (which, according to legend, Alexander Hamilton sang the night before his fateful duel), the Hildebrands’ performance revealed ballads much more haunting than the text suggests on its own when read silently. I plan to continue working on the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project with my students, but I will approach the project in new ways as a result of the Hildebrands’ performance and recordings. (Indeed, the recordings will be an important teaching tool in their own right.) I’ve gained a new appreciation for the way Bostonians and others would have experienced them in the early nineteenth century.