May 4

GUEST CURATOR: Tyler Reid

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (May 4, 1772).

“Be cautious, there are many … counterfeit watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”

John Simnet, a clock- and watchmaker, created this advertisement.  It displays a competitive market in 1772. Simnet emphasizes his “Term of Apprenticeship to Mr. Webster, Exchange Alley, London.”  He thought that his qualifications mattered.  He also mentioned his expertise in cleaning watches and fitting glasses. These skills mattered.  In an article about clocks and clockmakers in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, Michelle Smiley states that clockmaking “was considered an intellectual profession requiring great artisanal skill and scientific knowledge.”  In addition, “the mathematical precision and mechanical intricacy of the profession put it at a superior rank to the crafts of blacksmithing and carpentry.”  In his advertisement, Simnet had a big ego about his skill and knowledge, especially being trained in England and voyaging to the colonies.  He also complained about “counterfeit Watches … so bad they cannot be rendered useful.”  He believed that colonists should be careful when buying watches from others because they might end up receiving broken merchandise.  He wanted customers to think of him as reliable, as someone who sold only good watches that worked well.  According to his advertisements, they could trust him because of his training in England.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

When students in my classes submit their proposed advertisements for approval before moving to the research and writing phases of contributing the Adverts 250 Project, I often recognize the advertisers because I have already perused the newspapers to identify which notices belong in the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  I did not simply recognize the advertiser that Tyler selected for his entry.  Instead, John Simnet has become very familiar to me over the past three years as I have traced his advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette in 1769 and 1770 and then in newspapers published in New York in the early 1770s.  I consider Simnet the most notorious of the advertisers featured on the Adverts 250 Project because he regularly disseminated negative advertisements that demeaned his competitors as much as they promoted his own skill, expertise, training, and experience.  In both Portsmouth and New York, he participated in bitter feuds with competitors in the public prints, sometimes demeaning character as well as their abilities.

Tyler was not yet familiar with Simnet when he selected this advertisement, one of several variations that Simnet published in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal in the spring of 1772.  He chose it because the headline for “WATCHES” caught his interest.  He wanted to learn more about clock- and watchmakers in early America.  This presented an opportunity for me to once again dovetail my teaching and my research, a pedagogical moment that could not be planned in advance when inviting students to select any advertisements they wished to feature.  They usually focus on a single advertisement, an appropriate approach for students working this intensively with primary sources for the first time.  They make all sorts of connections between their advertisements and commerce, politics, and daily life in eighteenth-century America.  Yet we have fewer opportunities to examine the advertisers and their marketing campaigns.  When Tyler chose Simnet’s advertisement from among the hundreds that he might have selected from the first week of May 1772, that gave all the students in my Revolutionary America class a chance to hear more about the clock- and watchmaker’s long history of placing cantankerous advertisements that deviated from the norms of the period.  This context better humanized Simnet, even if it did not make him particularly likeable.  Each advertisement represents a snapshot of a particular moment in the past, but I also underscored the value of examining multiple advertisements, placed over weeks or even years, as a means of constructing an even more robust understanding of the experiences of the advertisers and their world.

April 15

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 13, 1772).

“Such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

John Simnet, a watchmaker, placed rather colorful newspaper advertisements over the course of several years in the late 1760s and 1770s, first in the New-Hampshire Gazette and later in newspapers published in New York.  During the time that he resided in New Hampshire, he engaged in nasty feud with a fellow watchmaker, Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith.  Having trained and worked in London, Simnet accused Griffith of not possessing the same level of skill and suggested that Griffith actually damaged the watches he attempted to repair.  In a series of advertisements, Simnet denigrated Griffith’s character, intellect, and skill.

That rivalry may have played a part in Simnet’s decision to relocate to New York.  He once again turned to the public prints to promote his business.  For a time, he focused primarily on his own credentials and expertise, but old habits died hard.  Simnet eventually found himself embroiled in another feud with a fellow watchmaker, though James Yeoman appears to have been the first to pursue their disagreement in print with an advertisement that seemed to critique Simnet’s credentials without naming him.  Given his personality, Simnet may have initiated the insults in person before the dispute moved into advertisements in the newspapers.  Regardless of who started it, Simnet had extensive experience demeaning a competitor in print.  In March 1772, he deployed some of the same strategies that he used against Griffith a few years earlier.

Even though he could not resist placing negative advertisements about Yeoman, Simnet may have learned from his experience in New Hampshire that consumers did not respond well to marketing campaigns that revolved entirely around disparaging others.  In his next advertisement, published in the April 13, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he returned to the kinds of appeals that he incorporated into his notices when he first arrived in New York.  He gave prospective customers a careful accounting of how much they could expect to pay for various goods and services, such as “a new Chain Six Shillings” and “the Price of joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings.”  He also promoted his prices while offering a guarantee, stating that he set rates for “every particular Article in repairing, at HALF the Price charg’d by any other, and no future Expence while the Materials, that is, Wheels and Pinions will endure.”  Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.”  That may have been a subtle critique of his many competitors, but not a targeted attack on Yeoman or any other watchmaker in New York.  To draw customers to his shop, Simnet also offered “such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

Simnet has been a fascinating character to track over the past three years, in large part because he deviated so significantly from one of the standard advertising practices of the period.  He sometimes placed advertisements that vilified his rivals rather than focusing on his expertise and experience.  Yet Simnet did not always go negative.  He also published advertisements that incorporated the tone and appeals usually found in newspaper notices by artisans.  In some cases, he also crafted innovative appeals, including free services to entice prospective customers into his shop in hopes of establishing relationships with them.  As an advertiser, he covered a greater range of appeals, positive and negative, than just about anyone else marketing their goods and services in the colonies in the decade before the American Revolution.

April 8

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 6, 1772).

“He is to be spoke with at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers.”

Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertising in eighteenth-century America, but not all advertisers resorted to the public prints.  Some posted broadsides or distributed handbills, trade cards, and billheads.  Some artisans affixed labels to furniture produced in their shops.  Others did not use printed media at all.  Instead, they relied on shop signs to mark their locations and communicate to prospective customers what kinds of goods and services they provided.

Far fewer shop signs survive than newspaper advertisements, but various sources suggest that colonizers encountered a rich visual landscape of shop signs as they traversed the streets in towns from New England to Georgia.  The April 6, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury testifies to some of the shop signs in the city during the era of the American Revolution.  In the colophon, incorporated into the masthead, Hugh Gaine declared that he printed the newspaper “at the Bible and Crown, in HANOVER-SQUARE.”  Elsewhere in the newspaper, John Sheiuble, an “ORGAN BUILDER, from PHILADELPHIA,” informed readers that they could speak with him “at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, in New-York.”  Prince’s shop sign made it into the public prints because a fellow artisan used it as a point of reference in his advertisement.  Whether or not they read the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, many colonizers likely associated the Sign of the Chest of Drawers with Prince and the furniture produced in his shop.  Sheiuble believed that the device was so widely recognized in the city that he did not need to mention the name of the street or any nearby landmarks to direct readers to Prince’s shop.

Sheiuble’s advertisement did not include a depiction of the Sign of the Chest of Drawers.  Merely mentioning the sign likely evoked an image in the minds of those who had seen it, but left others to rely on their imaginations.  On occasion, advertisers did adorn their newspaper notices (or trade cards and billheads) with images that replicated their shop signs.  For the most part, however, short descriptions, like the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, account for how much we know about the images colonizers glimpsed in the windows or hanging above the doors of eighteenth-century shops.

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.

March 9

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (March 9, 1772).

“Will be celebrated, the Anniversary of the REPEAL OF THE STAMP-ACT.”

A manicule called attention to an announcement about an upcoming event, a dinner commemorating the repeal of the Stamp Act, when the organizers advertised it in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in March 1772.  “ON Wednesday the 18th,” the notice proclaimed, “at the House of Mr. DE LA MONTAGNIE, will be celebrated, the Anniversary of the REPEAL OF THE STAMP-ACT, by those Gentlemen, and their Friends, who associated there last Year.”  The gathering marked the sixth anniversary.  Even before colonizers declared independence, they established traditions for commemorating some of the events that caused the American Revolution.  In New York, they held annual dinners to celebrate colonial resistance that contributed to the repeal of the Stamp Act.  In Boston, colonizers gathered annually for orations about the Bloody Massacre in King Street.  In person and in print, colonizers participated in a culture of commemoration of the revolutionary era before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.

The advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury invited newcomers to join those who had previously celebrated.  It alerted “Gentlemen … who associated there last Year” to return, but also encouraged “their Friends” to attend the dinner held on the sixth anniversary of the king giving royal assent on March 18 to a resolution to repeal the Stamp Act passed by Parliament on February 21, 1766.  News of the repeal arrived in the colonies in May, inciting a round of celebrations at that time as well.  The advertisement for the annual gathering “at the House of Mr. DE LA MONTAGNIE” reminded readers, even those who did not intend to attend, that the anniversary was approaching.  It likely prompted many to recall the protests and the nonimportation agreements that colonizers organized in opposition to the Stamp Act as well as subsequent actions taken against the duties imposed on certain imported goods in the Townshend Acts.  Merely announcing a dinner held to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act served as an abbreviated editorial about politics and recent events.

January 29

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 27, 1772).

“The Magazines from January, 1771, to October, inclusive,” Rivington stated, “are likewise come to Hand.”

James Rivington and other American booksellers sold some books printed in the colonies, but imported most of their inventory.  In January 1772, Rivington ran an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to advise prospective that he had recently imported “Lilly’s Modern Entries, a new and correct Edition; Hawkins’s Pleas of the Crown, a new and improved Edition; Wood’s Conveyancer, a new Edition; … [and] a great Variety of other Books in Law, Physick, Divinity, Mathematicks.”  Rivington noted that “the Particulars will be given in a few Days,” signaling to readers that he intended to insert a lengthier advertisement that listed even more titles or perhaps even distribute a book catalog printed separately.

A manicule drew attention to a final note.  “The Magazines from January, 1771, to October, inclusive,” Rivington stated, “are likewise come to Hand.”  American printers published even fewer magazines than books prior to the American Revolution.  They attempted less than fifteen titles before 1775.  Most of those magazines folded in a year or less, though a couple did run for two or three years.  Some printers distributed subscription notices to incite interest, but ultimately had difficulty attracting sufficient subscribers (or advertisers) to make publishing their magazines viable ventures.

When American readers perused magazines prior to declaring independence, they read imported publications printed in London.  Given the time necessary to transport those magazines across the Atlantic, that meant that colonizers read magazines several months after they were published.  That being the case, Rivington’s advertisement for magazines published a year earlier in January 1771 did not offer outdated material.  In fact, the October editions were about as current as any magazines that American consumers purchased.  In addition, Rivington also understood what some customers did with magazines when they acquired them.  Magazines were not just for reading; they were also for display. Some readers collected a “volume” of magazines, usually editions spanning six months or a year, and had them bound together to resemble books.  Advertising magazines “from January, 1771, to October, inclusive,” let customers interested in collecting and displaying a complete run of a magazine that Rivington could supply them with all the issues they needed.  While it may seem strange to modern readers that Rivington advertised magazines published a year earlier, doing so made good sense in 1772 because it resonated with how consumers read and otherwise engaged with those monthly publications.

January 8

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 6, 1772).

“Will sell them cheaper than any in the city.”

Charles Oliver Bruff, a goldsmith and jeweler, operated a shop at “the Sign of the Tea-pot, Tankard, and Ear-ring” on Maiden Lane in New York in the early 1770s.  He regularly placed newspaper notices to advise prospective clients of his services.  In the January 6, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, for instance, he declared that he “makes or mends any kind of diamond or enamel’d work in the jewellery way” and “makes all sorts of silversmiths work, and mends old work.”  In addition, he mended “ladies fans in the neatest manner and at the lowest price” and sold rings, lockets, “hair jewels,” and a variety of other jewelry.

Bruff sought to draw attention to two other aspects of his business.  He informed readers that he had “just finished some of the neatest dies for making sleeve buttons, with the neatest gold cuts to them to stamp all sorts of gold buttons, silver, pinchbeck, or brass.”  Colonizers who desired such distinctive buttons could acquire them from Bruff … and at bargain prices.  He pledged to “sell them cheaper than any in the city.”  In addition to buttons, Bruff also highlighted his interest in working with “gentlemen merchants that travel the country, or pedlars,” anticipating that they would purchase in quantity for resale.  The goldsmith asserted that peddlers “may depend on being used well.”  That included maintaining good relationships as well as offering low prices.  Bruff confided that for such customers he would “make any kind of work cheaper than they can get it in the city elsewhere.”

Whether hawking buttons, cultivating relationships with retailers, or mending fans for fashionable ladies, Bruff deployed superlatives to compare his prices to those of his competitors in the bustling port city.  He did not merely declare that he offered comparable low prices; instead, he claimed that he undersold other goldsmiths and jewelers in New York, hoping that this strategy would bring customers into his shop.

December 25

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (December 23, 1771).

“He intends to stay a month only in this city.”

John Siemon, a furrier, planned to remain in New York for a short time, “a month only,” so he quickly set about introducing himself to prospective clients by placing advertisements in local newspapers.  He commenced with an advertisement in the New-York Journal on December 19, followed by another advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury on December 23.  In the latter advertisement, he informed the public that he had “Lately arrived from LONDON” and visited New York via Philadelphia.  He brought with him “a general assortment of the newest fashion’d MUFFS, TIPPETS, ERMINES and lining for CLOAKS … now worn by the LADIES at the Court of Great-Britain.”  He also instructed milliners and shopkeepers to contact Fromberger and Siemon on Second Street in Philadelphia if they wished to place any orders following his departure.

Word for word, Siemon’s advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury replicated the one he placed in the New-York Journal.  One important difference, however, distinguished one notice from the other.  An image of a muff and tippet adorned the advertisement in the New-York Journal, doubling the amount of space it occupied (and its cost).  The same image previously appeared in Fromberger and Siemon’s advertisements in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and the Pennsylvania Journal, transferred from one printing office to another.  Siemon collected the woodcut and took it with him to New York to incorporate into his advertising campaign there, but since he had only one woodcut the image could appear in only one newspaper at a time.  He apparently chose to include it in the advertisement in the first newspaper going to press after his arrival in the city, intending to maximize the number of readers who encountered the image and took note of his advertisement as quickly as possible.  After all, if he planned “to stay a month only in this city” then he needed to make prospective customers aware of his presence as quickly as possible.  Advertising in multiple newspapers helped, but Siemon also strategically selected which newspaper would carry the image that identified his business.

November 27

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (November 25, 1771).

“Every other article that fashion produces in the millenary business.”

The appropriately named Susannah Faircloth sold a variety of textiles and adornments at her shop in New York in the early 1770s.  In an advertisement in the November 25, 1771, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, she listed “a variety of sattens and peelongs, figured and plain muslins, lawns, cambricks and taffeties” and “figured and plain gauze,” naming an array of fabrics familiar to discerning eighteenth-century consumers.  She acquired her wares from England, having imported them “in the Britannia, Capt. Thomas Miller, and the last vessels from London.”

Faircloth and other advertisers reported such connections to the cosmopolitan center of the empire as a means of convincing prospective customers that they carried the latest fashions.  Elsewhere in the same issue, for instance, the partnership of Leigh and Price promoted goods “imported by the Britannia, Capt. Miller, and by the late Vessels from London.”  Several artisans who set up shop in New York indicated that they formerly practiced their trades in London, including Bennett and Dixon, “Jewellers, Goldsmiths, and Lapidaries, from LONDON,” James Yeoman, “WATCH and CLOCK-MAKER, from LONDON,” and Thomas Brown, “Marble Cutter, FROM LONDON.”  With so many artisans hailing from London and so many merchants and shopkeepers outfitting customers in garments and goods from London, the advertisements in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury suggested to customers that they had full access to the styles of the fashionable metropolis.

Faircloth also invoked the latest tastes more explicitly.  Among her inventory, she carried “a quantity of the most fashionable ribbons.”  She concluded her advertisement with a proclamation that she also sold “every other article that the fashion produces in the millenary business.”  Prospective customers could depend on her to offer more than just goods shipped from London.  She also provided knowledge of the latest trends, a valuable resource for consumers.

November 11

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (November 11, 1771).

“Mr. SAUNDERS … is lately returned to this town.”

Hyman Saunders needed no introduction … or, more appropriately, when the illusionist returned to New York after an absence of a couple of months in 1771 he needed very little introduction.  In a brief advertisement in the November 11 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, Saunders “acquaint[ed] the nobility and gentry, that he is lately returned to this town, and intends to perform in private, (only) his dexterity and grand deception, to any select company.”  He advised those who wished to hire him to perform to send a note via the printer a day in advance.

Saunders needed little introduction in part because he had advertised in the public prints upon first arriving in New York a year earlier.  In the fall of 1770, he placed advertisements in the New-York Journal to announce that he had “Just arrived from EUROPE” and intended to stage “several new and astonishing performances in the dexterity of hand, different from what has been hitherto attempted, and such as was never seen in this province.”  Saunders offered a spectacle to entertain audiences, both those who attended his public performances and those who hired him for private shows.  To incite demand, he proclaimed that he would stay in the city “but a few weeks,” a common strategy among itinerant performers, but he extended his stay into February 1771.  At that time, he informed prospective audiences that he “intends to CONTINUE his PERFORMANCES a few Nights.”  He did indeed move on to Philadelphia eventually, advertising in the May 6, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle that he had “Just arrived from EUROPE” but had also performed “before his Excellency the Earl of DUNMORE, governor of New-York” upon arriving in the colonies.  In introducing himself to audiences in Philadelphia, Saunders distributed an advertisement that closely paralleled his initial notice in the New-York Journal.

He did not need to be so verbose when he returned to New York six months later.  His earlier advertisements introduced him to the public and his performances established his reputation in the city.  Those who saw performances of his “dexterity and grand deception” likely bolstered his publicity in the press via conversations with family, friends, and acquaintances.  In the fall of 1771, the itinerant performer no longer required the same sort of elaborate advertisements that he customarily inserted in local newspapers upon arriving in a new town.  Familiar to New Yorkers, Saunders determined that a brief notice would suffice.