What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Chris Barone, a student in my Revolutionary America class in Fall 2021, selected this advertisement that Nathan Frazier placed in the January 9, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. It prompted a conversation about how the meanings of some words have shifted since the eighteenth century. Frazier advertised “Cutlery Ware” among his “fresh Assortment of English and Scotch GOODS,” but that phrase did not mean knives, forks, and spoons to the shopkeeper or his prospective customers.
Instead, cutlery referred to “the art or trade of the cutler,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That gave us a chance to discuss the cutler, “one who makes, deals in, or repairs knives and similar cutting utensils,” as a common occupation in the eighteenth century. It also prompted us to explore the entry for “cutlery” in the Oxford English Dictionary in greater detail. We learned that the word also refers to “articles made or sold by cutlers, as knives, scissors, etc.” That definition included an example from 1787, the same period as the advertisement Chris selected. For other examples, we looked to previous entries in the Adverts 250 Project. We discovered several advertisements placed by cutlers that listed a variety of items they made, sold, and repaired. Samuel Wheeler advertised “good scythes and sickles” in the Pennsylvania Gazette in June 1770. Amos Atwell listed “Case Knives and Forks, Carving Knives and Forks, Pocket and Pen Knives of various Kinds, Razors, [and] Surgeons Instruments” in an advertisement for his “CUTLERY BUSINESS” in the Providence Gazette in 1771. Bailey and Youle, “Cutlers from Sheffield,” informed the public that they “MAKE all sorts of surgeons instruments” and “grinds all sorts of knives, razors, shears, and scissors” in an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in March 1771. A month later, Richard Sause ran a similar advertisement that included the same services and added “sword cutling.” Bailey and Youle included an image depicting about a dozen cutlery items. Sause again imitated his competitors with a similar image.
The Oxford English Dictionary also includes a definition for cutlery more familiar to modern readers: “knives, forks, spoons, etc., used for eating or serving food; a set of table utensils of this kind.” That entry includes several examples, though the earliest dates from 1821, half a century after Frazier placed his advertisement. A note also states that in earlier examples it is difficult to distinguish this meaning from “articles made or sold by cutlers.” Frazier’s advertisement for “Cutlery Ware” demonstrated that colonizers easily spoke a language of consumption among themselves that requires some effort by historians to understand 250 years later.