April 27

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

Apr 27 - 4:27:1767 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (April 27, 1767).

“I will work for the following prices.”

Charles Oliver Bruff, “Gold-smith and Jeweler,” was in a price war with “three different Silver-smiths” in New York. Bruff frequently advertised in the New-York Mercury, but he departed from his usual description of his merchandise and promises to provide good service to “the Gentlemen and Ladies of this city and country” to address a problem created by some of his competitors. He accused those “three different Silver-smiths” of undervaluing his work, making it seem as though he charged unreasonable prices.

To protect his reputation and avoid losing more business to his unscrupulous competitors, Bruff went to the rather extraordinary measure of listing his prices for the entire community to see, assess for themselves, and compare to the rates charged by other “Gentlemen of the trade.” He specified nine prices, including “For making a silver tankard, 3s. per ounce,” and “For making a soop-spoon, 20s.”

Bruff may not have been the innocent victim that he tried to portray himself. His initial prices may have been inflated, but he could not admit to that in his advertisement. Instead, he offered an alternate narrative that depicted his competitors as lacking in sound judgment when it came to assessing the quality of his work and the value of products in their trade more generally. At the same time, he lowered his own prices, seemingly forced to do so in order to continue to attract clients. As a result, new customers would receive quite a bargain since Bruff did not wish to “hurt myself for others” by charging full value for his workmanship only to be undercut by competitors. He concluded his advertisement by stating definitively that he would “work as cheap as any in this city.” Even if Bruff had overcharged in the past, intentionally or not, potential patrons need not worry about that happening if they now chose to deal with him.

January 19

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

jan-19-1191767-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (January 19, 1767).

“SKATES, OF different sizes.”

Hubert Van Wagenen sold a variety of goods – from “Ironmongery and Cutlery” to textiles and “sundry sorts of other Dry-goods” – at his store “at the Golden Broad-ax” in New York, but he highlighted one item in particular to attract the attention of potential customers: “SKATES, OF different sizes.” Van Wagenen enumerated his merchandise in a typical list advertisement, but he set apart “SKATES” as the only word on the first line, printed in a larger font so as to serve as a headline that invited readers to further explore his other wares.

By the late colonial period ice skating was a popular pastime in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies, especially among the gentry. Along with dancing and fencing, skating allowed the better sorts to demonstrate grace, power, and agility. According to Nancy Struna, both men and women among the gentry and the middling sort aspiring to join the gentry “expected to play and display their prowess in such endeavors in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.”[1] To that end, they engaged in selected sports and other physical activities that simultaneously evoked pleasure and allowed them to demonstrate skill and discipline through their personal comportment. Physical improvement was as important an element of refinement as learning and manners.

Unlike some of his competitors, Van Wagenen did not make explicit appeals to gentility when describing any of the goods listed in his advertisement. He did not, for instance, use the word “fashionable” or underscore that he imported goods that reflected the latest tastes in London. He may not have considered any of that necessary. Realizing that readers likely considered skating a genteel leisure activity, the shopkeeper had an alternate means of associating gentility with his shop. By listing “SKATES” first and using them to headline his advertisement, he set the tone for how readers should imagine the housewares, textiles, and accessories he also sold.

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[1] Nancy L. Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996) 121.

December 15

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

dec-15-12151766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (December 15, 1766).

She has employ’d a young woman lately arrived from London.”

When she decided to “decline Business for the present,” shopkeeper and milliner Elizabeth Colvil announced the eighteenth-century equivalent of a going-out-of-business sale. She “resolved to dispose of all her shop goods by wholesale and retail, at prime cost, for ready money only; the sale to continue till all are sold.” Colvil was liquidating her merchandise, enticing prospective customers with low prices in order to move the process along as quickly as possible.

In and of itself, that sort of promotion distinguished Colvil’s advertisement from many others of the period, but it was not the only aspect of her announcement that set it apart. After listing much of her remaining merchandise and promising “sundry other goods too tedious to mention,” Colvil indicated that she had hired an assistant, a young woman who had recently arrived from London. Her assistant, “who understands the millinary business, in all its branches,” would stay on until Colvil closed shop. At that time, she would pursue the business on her own “in the most extensive manner.” Although Colvil was not selling her shop to her assistant, she was setting her up as her successor.

To that end, Colvil made an appeal to current and prospective customers: “those ladies that shall please to favour her [the young woman recently arrived from London] with their custom, may rely on being served on the best terms, and their work done in the neatest and most fashionable manner.” Colvil voiced a strong endorsement of her assistant, directing the women of New York to patronize her assistant’s shop once Colvil had departed the marketplace.

This differs significantly from most eighteenth-century advertisements in which male merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans indicated the amiable end of a partnership or the transfer of a business from one man to another. In such cases they used advertisements to announce a change in status but did not incorporate an extensive endorsement of the new business or its proprietor.

Elizabeth Colvil probably knew a thing or two about the particular difficulties of being a woman and operating a business in eighteenth-century America. As a result, she attempted to assist her assistant in launching her own shop, recognizing that a young woman, especially one new to the city and unknown to most of its residents, would benefit from establishing a good reputation as quickly as possible. Colvil’s endorsement in her advertisement was the first step. The assistant working with customers was the second. She could build up a clientele, drawing on Colvil’s network of patrons, while the senior shopkeeper and milliner was still active in the business. In this advertisements, Elizabeth Colvil advocated on behalf of a fellow female entrepreneur.

December 8

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

dec-8-1281766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (December 8, 1766).

“BOOKS and STATIONARY … to be sold by Hugh Gaine.”

Hugh Gaine’s advertisement for “BOOKS and STATIONARY, Just imported in the last Ships from London” occupied a place of privilege in the December 8, 1766, issue of the New-York Mercury. It appeared in the first column (and extended into the second) on the first page, the first item below the masthead and charts for high tides and prices current. Just to make sure that readers noticed this advertisement, several words were printed in the largest fonts that appeared anywhere in that issue: “Hugh Gaine” in a size that rivaled the title of newspaper in the masthead and “BOOKS and STATIONARY” (at the top of the first column) and “STATIONARY, &c.” (at the top of the second column) in sizes nearly as large.

Gaine did not have to pay extra or engage in any sort of negotiations with the printer of the New-York Mercury in order for his advertisement to receive such extraordinary treatment. As the masthead announced, he printed the newspaper! That certainly gave him the authority and ability to design his own advertisement and lay out the issue in ways that best served his own interests. He used one of his products, his newspaper, to promote the assortment of books, stationery, and other goods he sold “at the Bible and Crown, in Hanover-Square.” Sometimes the layout of advertising in colonial newspapers was haphazard. Printers often moved type already set from previous issues into other columns in subsequent issues or changed the order of advertisements in order to insert other items. In this case, however, the placement of Gaine’s advertisement was not merely fortuitous; it was intentional.

dec-8-1281766-first-page-new-york-mercury
First Page of New-York Mercury (December 8, 1766).

On the third page, an advertisement for “HUTCHINS’s Improved: BEING AN ALMANACK AND EPHEMERIS Of the Motions of the SUN & MOON” had similarly large font for some of the key words, distinguishing it from the other advertisements and news items on the same and facing pages. Not surprisingly, the almanac was sol “at HUGH GAINE’s Book-Store and Printing-Office, in Hanover-Square.”

In contrast, a relatively short advertisement announcing that James Rivington had just imported “sundry new Books” appeared on the fourth page. Rivington’s name appeared in all capital letters in a font the same size as the names of other advertisers. Gaine published advertisements from his competitors, but he made sure that his own marketing notices overshadowed them in significant ways. Such was the power of the printer!

November 17

GUEST CURATOR: Mary Williams

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

nov-17-11171766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (November 17, 1766).

“To be sold cheap by John Keteltas … pewter tea-pots.”

In this advertisement from the New-York Mercury, John Keteltas announced that he had an assortment of goods imported from London and Bristol to be sold “cheap” at his store located “in Queen-street.” I decided to focus on his listing for “pewter tea-pots.”

I first decided to do some research on pewter as a material. Pewter is an alloy metal that is made up of mostly tin. Pewter was often used for domestic items such as dishes and cups and even teapots. Pewterers often marked their pewter creations with a signature “touchmark” so people could identify who created the item. Consumers who purchased pewter items would also on some occasions put their own touchmark, often their initials, on their items. Some wealthy families would have their family crest stamped onto their pewter item as their touchmark.

In A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, Joseph Bagley writes that pewter as a material flourished during the eighteenth century in Boston, but by the late 1700s, shortly after this advertisement was published, pewter saw a decline in popularity. “The eventual decline in the use of pewter happened in the late 1700s, when cheaply made English ceramics flooded the market, replacing the equally inexpensive pewter goods with whiter-colored wares and their sometimes colorful decorations.”[1] Pewter domestic wares were common, but other options became increasingly available and more popular.

Tea played an important role in the daily lives of colonial families. In Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, Benjamin Carp notes that in the eighteenth century drinking tea was a regular event for families of all classes. He writes, “During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere.”[2]

John Keteltas advertised an essential item made of a common material. Considering he also promised his items to be sold at a cheap price, we can assume that a wide variety of people might respond to his advertisement in their search for a “pewter tea-pot.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

It is impossible to know from John Keteltas’ advertisement if the “pewter tea-pots” he sold had the sort of touchmarks that Mary described. Artisans of all sorts frequently marked their work in one way or another in the eighteenth century. While they did so out of pride in the items they had created, this practice served other purposes as well. Pewterers and others marked their wares as a means of permanently associating their skill and expertise with the goods they produced. In this manner, they branded the items that came out of their workshops. They transformed their creations, the goods that consumers would display and use in their households, into advertisements through the act of marking them. In one sense, such items never fully left the possession of artisans to become the property of their customers. Even when customers used a family crest or other means of personalizing their possessions, such marks competed with any touchmark that belonged to the creator. No matter how often they were used to serve the needs of consumers, marked items also continued to promote the work of the artisans who produced them. Every time a colonist used an item with a touchmark or other device he or she was exposed to a form of perpetual marketing.

The Adverts 250 Project focuses primarily on newspaper advertisements, though other forms of printed marketing materials (such as trade cards, broadsides, catalogs, and billheads) are sometimes featured. Yet not all advertising in colonial America was printed. Some of it was verbal, delivered by word of mouth, town criers, auctioneers, or street hawkers. Or, in the case of the “pewter tea-pots” sold by John Keteltas and other items made by artisans, material goods themselves could serve as advertisements. Furniture with paper labels affixed combined printed advertising and material goods, as did books with labels of various sorts. In such cases, commodities became advertisements for more commodities.

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[1] Joseph M. Bagley, A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2016), 95.

[2] Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 55.

October 13

GUEST CURATOR: Jordan Russo

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

oct-13-10131766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (October 13, 1766).

“BEING the largest and most curious collection …”

In this advertisement Gerardus Duyckinck described the merchandise in his “Universal STORE” as a “Medley of GOODS for the CURIOUS.” Duyckinck sold “plain and ornamented looking-glasses” and “maps, charts and prints of various sorts.” I imagine the items in Duyckinck’s store were not sold everywhere else or else it would not have made sense to call them “GOODS for the CURIOUS.”

Duyckinck sold items for a variety of customers. Some of merchandise was high end while others was not. For example, his glassware was “plain” or “ornamented.” The differences in merchandise meant that the prices varied between items. Duynkinck said that he had “high and low-priced paper hangings.” Duycknick was not attempting to sell his items to one type of customer; he had items and prices welcoming to all.

T.H. Breen notes that “British imports initially flowed into the households of the well-to-do. These are the goods that catch our eyes in modern museums and restored colonial homes.”[1] When we visit museums today, we are most likely to see the sort of chic merchandise that Duynkinck sold to elite customers.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Historians of eighteenth-century consumer culture and material culture frequently discuss the sense of wonder that colonists experienced as they encountered an expanding array of goods that they purchased and put to use for a variety of purposes. Some goods were completely utilitarian; others were luxury items. Some denoted conspicuous consumption; most testified to the identity of the consumer in one fashion or another.

In some instances historians have carefully excavated the sense of excitement that colonists felt when confronted with new consumer choices. For instance, the standard list advertisement (with its heavy and dense format) may not seem especially exciting when viewed through modern eyes, but thick descriptions of how such lists presented a new world of imagination, sensation, and possession to eighteenth-century consumers uncover raucous enthusiasm.

Jordan has chosen an advertisement that does not require quite as much excavation. Gerardus Duyckinck verbalized the sense of wonder and excitement that he knew consumers felt, mobilizing it to bring customers into his “Universal STORE.” He offered a variety of specialty goods among his “Medley of GOODS for the CURIOUS.” He deployed hyperbole to describe his wares, which included “the largest and most curious collection” of looking glasses “ever imported in America, consisting of the greatest variety.” He stocked paper hangings (wallpaper today): “an extraordinary assortment … as has yet been imported at one time into New-York.” His general merchandise included “the greatest variety of goods in the several branches, suitable for country and city tradesmen, mechanicks, and private families.”

What would it have been like to visit Duyckinck’s shop? Was he as much of an entrepreneur, an early modern carnival barker, in person as he sounded in his advertisement? Interacting with the shopkeeper may have been an important part of the entertainment involved in shopping at his establishment, just as significant as the pleasures of inspecting his merchandise and exercising choice in selecting among his wares.

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[1] T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1986): 487.

September 22

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

sep-22-9221766-new-york-mercury
New-York Mercury (September 22, 1766).

“Mr. KNAPP, with strict Candour, agreeable to the Constitution, and Fundamentals of Law and Equity, will give his Opinion and Advice on any Case.”

Lengthy expositions and sensational narratives by John Coghill Knapp were a fixture among the advertisements that appeared in the New-York Mercury in 1766, giving the impression that the “Attorney at Law” loved to talk in real life and would spare no effort in pursuing the interests of his clients. The preponderance of prose in his advertisements may have been a selling point, demonstrating to potential clients that he left no stone unturned and no contingency unanticipated.

While it may not be completely fair to compare Knapp’s legal philosophy to modern ambulance chasers known for their obnoxiously loud television commercials and flashy billboards, the two both adopted modes of advertising intended to attract as much attention as possible. Force of personality played a part in Knapp’s advertising, but he also resorted to gimmicks to tempt potential customers to avail themselves of his services. He promised to “give his Opinion and Advice on any Case, verbally stated, for One Dollar.” This one-price-fits-all fee structure seemed designed to get as many clients as possible into his office on Rotten Row, especially those nervous about the costs of consulting other attorneys.

Knapp’s fee structure also suggested that he sought to work with common men and women, not just the elite and affluent. In addition to charging one dollar for cases “verbally stated,” he charged “similar easy Terms” for cases in writing, depending on “the Length of papers to peruse, and Number of Questions to solve.” Knapp recognized that many of his potential clients might not have extensive documents (or any at all) related to their legal concerns. He also implicitly acknowledged that some potential clients might be able to read his advertisements but not write much (or anything) about the various situations he described in his advertisement.

Knapp developed an over-the-top persona in his advertisements as he positioned himself as a lawyer who served everyday people.