What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years this week?
“KEARNY and GILBERT, At the sign of the Snuff Bottle, and their names over the store door.”
Newspaper advertisements from the period suggest visual elements of marketing erected in eighteenth-century cities and villages. Residents and visitors alike encountered an array of shop signs that retailers used to identify their businesses. Such was the case in the first issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette published in May 1767. Although their signs have been lost to time, several advertisers included descriptions of them alongside other directions intended to guide customers to their shops.
Nathaniel Tweedy, a druggist, announced that he could he sold medicines “At the Golden Eagle, in Market-street, near the Court-house.” Dyers Joseph Allardyce and Company practiced their trade “at the Sign of the Blue Hand, in Race-street, between Front and Second Streets.” Edward Penington, an attorney, advertised a real estate auction to be held “at the house of John Biddle, at the sign of the Indian King, in Market-street.” William Dawson, a cutler, not only stated that he made a various kinds of knives and other implements “At the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” but also included a woodcut depicting those instruments suspended from a signpost. Each of these, especially Dawson’s advertisement, hints at the rich visual cityscape of marketing in Philadelphia in the decade before the Revolution.
In many instances, such signs provided the sole means of identifying a shop or tavern, but other advertisers stated that they also labeled their places of business with their own names. Kearny and Gilbert, for instance, stocked an array of merchandise “At the sign of the Snuff Bottle … in Water Street.” To alleviate any potential confusion, customers could also look for “their names over the store door.” George Frederick Boyer, one of Dawson’s competitors in the cutlery business, displayed “a Sign in Front-street, and another in Water-street, with his Name thereon, and on which are painted Swords, Knives, Lancets, Razors, and Grinding Tools.”
How often did eighteenth-century shopkeepers, artisans, and other entrepreneurs label their locations with their own names or include them on their fanciful signs? Did most signs provide visual identification exclusively? Or did they also tend to incorporate at least a minimal amount of text, even if just the name of the proprietor? In the absence of devices like the Golden Eagle or the Blue Hand, did others at least post placards with their names so potential customers knew they had arrived at the correct destination? Or did they assume the extensive directions provided in advertisements sufficed?
I do not have satisfactory answers to these questions, but they remind me that the history of advertising in eighteenth-century America requires research along multiple trajectories, utilizing multiple sorts of sources. Newspaper notices and other printed ephemera (magazine wrappers, broadsides, trade cards, catalogs) tell much of the story, but material culture (such as shop signs or packaging materials, both more likely in museum collections rather than archives) reveals other important aspects of how marketing worked in early America.