GUEST CURATOR: Tyler Reid
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“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.
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.