September 27

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (September 21, 1772).

“As yet there has not appeared an American Edition of this valuable Piece, what few came over were soon snatch’d up.”

Thomas Nixon sold several books at “his Shop at the Fly-Market” in New York in the fall of 1772.  In an advertisement in the September 21, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury he promoted “THE celebrated Lecture on HEADS, by George Alexander Stevens” and “the Devil upon Crutches in England, or the Night Scenes in London, a satirical Work, written upon the Plan of the celebrated Diable Boiteua of Monsieur La Sage, by a Gentleman of Oxford.”  Both books had been published in Philadelphia, The Celebrated Lecture on Heads by Samuel Dellap, whose name appeared just as prominently in the advertisement as Nixon’s own, and The Devil upon Crutches by William Evitt. According to Isaiah Thomas, Dellap traveled frequently between Philadelphia and New York, transporting books from each location for sale in the other.

Nixon composed an advertisement that deployed the popularity of those works to market them to consumers in New York.  To entice readers to purchase Stevens’s satire on fashion and physiognomy, Nixon proclaimed, “These Lectures have been exhibited in London upwards of One Hundred successive Nights, to crowded Audiences, and met with the most universal Applause.”  Consumers could experience that sensation themselves, though tangentially, by acquiring their own copies of the “celebrated Lecture.”  The advertisement went into even greater detail about audience reception of The Devil upon Crutches.  “This Satyre,” Nixon explained, “is universally approved of by all Ranks of People in Europe, and all those Parts of America where it has made its Appearance.”  The bookseller attempted to use the strength of sales elsewhere to influence local consumers, reporting that “six large Impressions were struck off in London in one Year, besides several other Impressions printed in Dublin and Edinburgh.” A few copies found their way to the colonies, met with such demand that they “were soon snatch’d up, tho’ sold at no less Price than 5s.”  Rather than five shillings, Nixon offered the first American edition of only two shillings, surely a bargain for readers who wanted to partake in the phenomenon of The Devil upon Crutches.

Today, publishers regularly cite bestseller lists and the number of copies sold in their efforts to convince consumers to purchase books that have already achieved widespread popularity.  Nixon devised a version of that strategy when he marketed The Celebrated Lecture on Heads and The Devil upon Crutches in New York during the era of the American Revolution.

August 31

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (August 31, 1772).

To the LADIES of New-York.”

Although newspaper editorials depicted women as consumers who gave into luxury, relatively few colonial merchants and shopkeepers addressed women directly in their advertisements.  Instead, most presented their merchandise for the consideration of both men and women, encouraging prospective customers of both sexes to participate in the consumer revolution.

Jane Willson did target women in her advertisement in the August 31, 1772, edition of the News-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  The first line of her notice requested attention from “the LADIES of New-York” before launching into a description of “A GREAT VARIETY OF BEAUTIFUL japan’d goods, with cream colour’d grounds, and other colours of the newest taste.”  Willson referred to items decorated in imitation of East Asian lacquerware, a popular style in England and its American colonies in the eighteenth century.  She imported “tea trays and waiters, tea chests completed with canisters, tea kitchens, and compleat tea tables” decorated with “well painted landskips [landscapes], human figures, fruit and flowers.”  Willson underscored that she carried new designs, “some of them only finished last May, at Birmingham, and imported to New-York” on the Hope earlier that month.   Consumers could not obtain any similar items of newer design.  Willson offered “the LADIES of New-York” cutting-edge fashion when it came to japanned ware.

Although most of her advertisement focused on those items, Willson did not seek female customers exclusively.  She also carried “some holster pistols, and a few oil’d hat covers for gentlemen’s use,” likely anticipating that once men entered her shop they might browse and purchase the japanned items or other items that she stocked.  Even if some male customers did not wish to seem too eager to examine tea tables and tea chests, the pistols and hat covers gave them plausible reasons for their initial visits to Willson’s shop.  Even an advertisement addressed “To the LADIES of New-York” presented possibilities for men to enjoy the pleasures of shopping and acquiring decorative wares for their homes.

July 13

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

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

“All sorts of knives and forks, pocket and penknives.”

Lucas and Shephard, “WHITESMITHS and CUTLERS, From BIRMINGHAM and SHEFFIELD,” enhanced their advertisement in the July 13, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury with a woodcut that depicted many of the items they made and sold at their new location in “the shop lately occupied by Messrs. Bailey and Youle.” Lucas and Shephard provided an extensive list of their wares, making the combination of words and image an eighteenth-century precursor to the illustrated catalogs that so significantly shaped consumer culture in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Lucas and Shephard followed the lead of other cutlers in New York.  Previously, Bailey and Youle adorned their own advertisements with a woodcut that depicted more than a dozen items they produced in the shop.  When the partnership dissolved, James Youle retained the woodcut, modified it to remove his former partner’s name, and inserted it in advertisements in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in June and July 1772.  Lucas and Shepard began running their advertisement two weeks after Youle’s notice ran on June 29.  It was not the first time that the woodcut that accompanied one of Youle’s advertisements may have inspired imitation.  In April 1771, Richard Sause ran advertisements with a woodcut that showed all sorts of cutlery items that he made at his shop just a few weeks after Bailey and Youle’s notice appeared in the public prints.  A sword and a table knife even bore his name, suggesting that he marked his work in some manner.

Like those cutlers who placed advertisements before them, Lucas and Shephard deployed a variety of appeals to entice prospective customers.  They emphasized their skill, promising “great accuracy” in their work, and a “reasonable price.”  They also made a nod to customer services, pledging to “carry on their business with dispatch” in order “to give satisfaction to all who may please to employ them.  The image increased the likelihood that readers would take note of their advertisement, especially considering Youle continued running his own advertisements with depictions of his cutlery ware.  Lucas and Shephard may have considered their own woodcut imperative for competing with Youle, a necessary investment when they chose to advertise in a newspaper in which he already established visibility for his shop.

June 10

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (June 8, 1772).

“The Post of Mr. SIMNETT’s Dial is white, to distinguish it.”

John Simnet, a watchmaker, ran several advertisements in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal in the spring of 1772.  In several of them, he pursued a feud with another watchmaker, James Yeoman, but he did not make any new insinuations about his competitor in a notice that appeared in the Gazette on June 8.  In the most aggressive portion of the advertisement, Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.”  Such commentary did not apply exclusively to Yeoman or any other rival.  Simnet had a long history of accusing most watchmakers of creating work for themselves by making repairs intended to last for only a short time.

Simnet devoted most of this advertisement to promoting various aspects of his own business rather than denigrating Yeoman or other watchmakers.  He boasted about his credentials, noting that “during the Term of Apprenticeship” he served as “Finisher to Mr. Webster, Exchange Alley, London.”  He also underscored his availability to greet customers “from Five in the Morning till Six in the Evening.”  In addition, he listed prices for several common services, such as “Joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings” and a “new Main Spring either Six or Eight Shillings,” so prospective customers could assess the bargains for themselves.  To guide them in doing so, Simnet asserted that he set rates “at HALF the Price charg’d by any other” and explained that his customers did not have to worry about “future Expence,” those annual repairs.

The watchmaker did insert one clarification that did not previously appear in other variations of his advertisement that spring.  Apparently, another watchmaker set up shop in the vicinity, prompting Simnet to give more explicit directions to his own location.  “As there is now another of the Trade adjoining,” he explained, “please with Care to observe the Place; the Post of Mr. SIMNETT’s Dial is white, to distinguish it, and his Shop is low, aside the Coffee-House Bridge, but not the Corner.”  In a previous advertisement, he described the device that marked his shop as “the Black Dial, with a White Post.”  A competitor may have marked his own shop with a similar device, causing Simnet to focus on the color of the post.  Readers familiar with the usual tone in Simnet’s advertisements may have wondered how much time would elapse before he published more colorful commentary about “another of the Trade” with a shop so close to his own.

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.