Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

Today is an important day for specialists in early American print culture, for Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 (January 6, 1705, Old Style), in Boston. Among his many other accomplishments, Franklin is known as the “Father of American Advertising.” Although I have argued elsewhere that this title should more accurately be bestowed upon Mathew Carey (in my view more prolific and innovative in the realm of advertising as a printer, publisher, and advocate of marketing), I recognize that Franklin deserves credit as well. Franklin is often known as “The First American,” so it not surprising that others should rank him first among the founders of advertising in America.

benjamin-franklin
Benjamin Franklin (Joseph Siffred Duplessis, ca. 1785).  National Portrait Gallery.

Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. In the wake of becoming printer, he experimented with the visual layout of advertisements that appeared in the weekly newspaper, incorporating significantly more white space and varying font sizes in order to better attract readers’ and potential customers’ attention. Advertising flourished in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which expanded from two to four pages in part to accommodate the greater number of commercial notices.

jan-17-pennsylvania-gazette-19-161736
Advertisements with white space, varying sizes of font, capitals and italics, and a woodcut from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette (December 9-16, 1736).

Many historians of the press and print culture in early America have noted that Franklin became wealthy and retired as a printer in favor of a multitude of other pursuits in part because of the revenue he collected from advertising. Others, especially David Waldstreicher, have underscored that this wealth was amassed through participation in the colonial slave trade. The advertisements for goods and services featured in the Pennsylvania Gazette included announcements about buying and selling enslaved men, women, and children as well as notices offering rewards for those who escaped from bondage.

jan-17-pennsylvania-gazette-slave-19-161736
Advertisement for an enslaved woman and an enslaved child from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette (December 9-16, 1736).

In 1741 Franklin published one of colonial America’s first magazines, The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, for all the British Plantations in America (which barely missed out on being the first American magazine, a distinction earned by Franklin’s competitor, Andrew Bradford, with The American Magazine or Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies). The magazine lasted only a handful of issues, but that was sufficient for Franklin to become the first American printer to include an advertisement in a magazine (though advertising did not become a standard part of magazine publication until special advertising wrappers were developed later in the century — and Mathew Carey was unarguably the master of that medium).

general-magazine
General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America (January 1741).  Library of Congress.

In 1744 Franklin published an octavo-sized Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, including 445 entries. This is the first known American book catalogue aimed at consumers (though the Library Company of Philadelphia previously published catalogs listing their holdings in 1733, 1735, and 1741). Later that same year, Franklin printed a Catalogue of Books to Be Sold at Auction.

Franklin pursued advertising through many media in eighteenth-century America, earning recognition as one of the founders of American advertising. Happy 315th birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

January 6

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (January 3, 1771).

“Said EVITT prints advertisements, &c. at two hours notice.”

At first glance, many readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette may have thought that William Evitt’s notice in the January 3, 1771, edition was yet another advertisement for an almanac.  Such advertisements were common at the turn of the new year as printers attempted to sell surplus copies not purchased before the new year began.  David Hall and William Sellers, the printers of both the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, inserted their own advertisement on the previous page.  The prologue to Evitt’s advertisement suggested that he would devote the entire notice to describing the contents of “THE UNIVERSAL and POOR ROBIN’S ALMANACKS, for the year 1771.”  Although he did promote those two publications, as well as “The GENTLEMAN and CITIZEN’S POCKET ALMANACK” with its “greater variety of useful lists, tables, &c. &c. &c. than any other almanack printed in America,” Evitt addressed a variety of other endeavors in the second half of his advertisement.  He informed customers that he sold books, stationery, and patent medicines, like many other printers, but he also carried other merchandise, including stockings, handkerchiefs, sieves, brushes, soap, and common grocery items.

Near the conclusion of his advertisement, Evitt returned to goods and services more closely associated with printers.  He advised prospective clients that he “prints advertisements, &c. at two hours notice.”  In other words, he did job printing.  Jobs included advertisements, broadsides (today known as posters), circular letters, and a vast array of printed blanks (or forms).  Clients submitted copy or, in the case of blanks, chose from among popular options, then Evitt set the type and produced the specified number of copies.  Evitt did not elaborate on the forms of advertising he printed, but they likely included handbills, catalogs, trade cards, bill heads, broadsides, and circular letters.  He produced them quickly, though the process of manually operating the press meant that he could produce only a limited quantity in that time.  Still, most orders were likely relatively small, in the range of a couple hundred copies.  Evitt considered job printing, especially advertisements, lucrative enough and potentially steady enough to merit mentioning alongside his other enterprises.  In emphasizing the speed of production, he suggested that he competed to provide a service already in demand.  It is quite likely that handbills, broadsides, and other advertisements that came off his press have been lost over time.  Evitt’s newspaper advertisement testifies to a more extensive circulation of other forms of advertising, each of them more ephemeral than newspapers systematically collected and preserved since the eighteenth century.  While newspaper advertising was by far the most common form of marketing in early America, colonists likely encountered other formats more regularly than the numbers of those that survive in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections suggest on their own.

December 20

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (December 20 1770).

“He doubts not but every merchant and shop-keeper in this city, and towns adjacent that regard the good of this oppressed country, will encourage such an undertaking.”

Abraham Shelley, a “THREAD-MAKER, in Lombard-street” in Philadelphia, sought to convince colonial consumers that purchasing his wares amounted to a civic duty.  In an advertisement in the December 20, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he informed prospective customers that he continued “to make and sell … all sorts of fine coloured thread” that he asserted was “much better, and cheaper, than what is imported from Europe.”  Quality and price were important, but Shelley gave consumers additional reasons to purchase his thread.  He offered alternatives to imported goods to colonists who had widely pledged to encourage “domestic manufactures” as a means of correcting a trade imbalance with Britain as well as practicing politics through commerce in the wake of duties that Parliament imposed on certain imported goods.  Even after colonists ended their nonimportation pacts following the repeal of those Townshend duties, some advertisers continued to proclaim the virtues of domestic manufactures.  More than ever, they depended on consumers making conscientious decisions in the marketplace.

When customers selected Shelley’s thread over imported alternatives, they did not have to sacrifice quality or price.  They also demonstrated support for American efforts to achieve greater self-sufficiency to protect against subsequent attempts by Parliament to harass the colonies.  He asked consumers to take into account “the good of this oppressed country.”  In addition, he underscored that his enterprise “supplies a great number of poor women with market money, who, otherwise, with their children, would become a public charge.”  Civic responsibility inherent in purchasing thread from Shelley extended beyond politics to poor relief.  That meant that consumers could serve their communities in many ways simultaneously when they decided to buy from Shelley, who proclaimed that he “doubts not but every merchant and shop-keeper in this city, and towns adjacent” should acquire thread from him to sell to others.  The civic responsibility he described belonged not only to consumers but also to those who sold goods to them.  Merchants and shopkeepers also made important decisions in choosing which items to stock in their stores and shops.  Quality and price matter, but Shelley believed that civic responsibility further enhanced his appeals to customers.

November 29

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (November 29, 1770).

“He may take the LIBERTY of craving the continuance of their favours.”

John Mason, an upholsterer who ran a shop at the Sign of the Crown and Cushion in Philadelphia, had a habit of injecting politics into the newspaper advertisements he placed in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  He often emphasized the words “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” in notices offering his services to consumers.  For instance, in an advertisement in the August 7, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, he requested “LIBERTY to inform his friends and customers that he has removed his PROPERTY” to a new location.  He then provided a short history of mattresses to argue that those he stuffed with wool were superior to others stuffed with straw or feathers, but after that bit of frivolity he concluded with a jeremiad about Parliament imposing duties on certain imported goods.  He proclaimed that “Liberty is the Common Cry” due to the Townshend Acts that would “Deprive [colonists] of our Liberty and property.”  Nearly a year later, he placed an advertisement for paper hangings “(not lately imported),” mattresses, and trimmings in the July 19, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal.  He concluded with a poem that decried New York for abandoning liberty by discontinuing the nonimportation agreement before Parliament repealed all of the duties on imported goods.

A few months later, Mason placed a new advertisement in the November 29, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  He once again accentuated the words “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY,” though this time he did not include more extensive commentary about the current political climate in Pennsylvania and the rest of the colonies.  In this instance, he declared that he “presumes he may take the LIBERTY of craving the continuance” of the “favours” of his “friends and customers in general” in his efforts “dispose of his PROPERTY.”  Along with “FURNITURE CHECKS,” the words “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” were the only words in all capitals in the body of Mason’s advertisements.  Accordingly, they likely attracted attention, priming readers to think about current events as they perused Mason’s notice, especially those already familiar with the outspoken upholsterer’s politics.

At the conclusion of his notice, Mason testified that “it is the distinguishing character of noble and generous minds to employ the industrious.”  He then pledged “his utmost endeavours to give general satisfaction.”  Although not as explicitly political as the short sermons in some of his earlier advertisements, Mason may have intended for that statement to resonate with conversations about encouraging domestic manufactures as alternatives to imported goods.  He suggested that his prospective customers had both an obligation and an opportunity; they had an obligation to support “industrious” colonists and an opportunity to demonstrate their “distinguishing character” and “noble and generous minds” by doing so.  Given the contents of the rest of the newspaper as well as the pattern the upholsterer established in his marketing, readers likely recognized Mason’s message in this advertisement even without a more elaborate lecture about politics.

September 30

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

“Being much importuned by sundry young men of the carpenter’s business …”

Pennsylvania Gazette (September 27, 1770).

Thomas Nevell was “one of colonial Philadelphia’s most prominent master builders, according to curator Erin Kuykendall Thomas of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.  Nevell “designed and constructed significant public and private buildings, from the classically inspired Georgian mansion Mount Pleasant to the utilitarian cabinetmaking shop of Benjamin Randolph” (an artisan famous among early American advertising enthusiasts for his ornate trade card).  Yet in the eyes of architectural historians, Nevell deserves acclaim for another accomplishment.  His “unique contribution to his profession,” in the words of Carl G. Karsh, “was the city’s – and probably the nation’s – first architecture school.”

Karsh locates the origins of Nevell’s instruction in “a lengthy advertisement which doubles as syllabus for Nevell’s new venture,” published in the October 31, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  He originally taught lessons in his, but the school was so successful that Nevell built a two-story classroom behind the house in 1772.  By that time, Nevell had opened his academy for at least two seasons.  An advertisement in the September 27, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette announced that he “sundry young men of the carpenter’s business” convinced him to offer lessons.  Classes were scheduled to begin on October 1 and continue through the end of March.  Just as he would do the following fall, he provided an overview of the material covered, including “the most useful problems in geometry,” “the most easy and ready method of describing brackets for plaistered cornices and coverings,” and “a new and concise method to form the diminution of columns, dividing and gauging the flutes and fillets of either columns or pilasters.”  Pupils could expect that many of these lessons would require hands-on work rather than attending lectures.  They “will be reduced to practice in miniature,” Nevell stated.

Nevell charged ten shillings as an initial entrance fee and then twenty shilling per month for as long as students continued to attend the school.  He offered lessons “from 6 to 9 o’clock at night” three evenings each week.  The following year, he extended the numbers of nights he offered instruction to four each week, but tuition remained the same.

Operating the school likely further enhanced Nevell’s reputation as a master builder.  He claimed that he offered lessons “with some reluctance” after “being much importuned” by younger men who wanted to learn the trade and who recognized and respected his work.  Although Nevell did not make appeals directly to prospective clients in his advertisement for his new school, he may have expected that notifying the public of this new enterprise would further enhance his standing as one of the most skilled artisans in Philadelphia.

September 23

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (September 20, 1770).

“POOR RICHARD’s ALMANACK, for the Year 1771.”

With the arrival of fall in 1770 came the season for advertising almanacs for 1771.  A few advertisements for almanacs appeared in various newspapers during the summer months, but they had not yet become regular features.  In late September, those advertisements began appearing in greater numbers.  Newspaper readers would have been accustomed to the seasonal pattern, expecting to encounter more and more advertisements for almanacs in October, November, and December and then a gradual tapering off in the new year as printers attempted to rid themselves of surplus stock before the contents became obsolete.  Almanacs were big business for printers, both those who published newspapers and those who did not.  These inexpensive pamphlets found their way into households from the most grand to the most humble.  Readers could select among a variety of titles, likely choosing favorites and developing customer loyalty over the years.

The compositor of the Pennsylvania Gazette conveniently placed four advertisements for six almanacs together in the September 20, 1770, edition.  The first announced that Hall and Sellers had just published the popular Poor Richard’s Almanack as well as the Pocket Almanack.  That advertisement, the longest of the four, appeared first, not coincidentally considering that Hall and Sellers printed the Pennsylvania Gazette.  The printers accepted advertisements from competitors, but that did not prevent them from giving their own advertisement a privileged place.  In the other three advertisements, local printers hawked other almanacs.  John Dunlap published and sold Father Abraham’s Almanack.  From Joseph Crukshank, readers could acquire Poor Will’s Almanack.  William Evitt supplied both the Universal Almanack and Poor Robin’s Almanack.  Hall and Sellers took advantage of their ability to insert advertisements gratis in their own newspaper by composing a notice twice the length of the others.  They listed far more of the contents as a means of inciting demand among prospective customers.

This was the first concentration of advertisements for almanacs in the fall of 1770, but others would soon follow in newspapers published throughout the colonies.  If the advertising campaigns launched in previous years were any indication, readers could expect to see even more elaborate notices than the one published by Hall and Sellers as well as many others that simply made short announcements that almanacs were available from printers and booksellers.  Such advertisements were a sign of the season in eighteenth-century America.

August 19

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

Aug 19 1770 - 8:16:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (August 16, 1770).

“CLOCK and WATCH-MAKER, at the DIAL in WILMINGTON.”

Two clock- and watchmakers advertised in the August 16, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but they likely did not consider each other competitors.  John Wood promoted a “PARCEL of neat Philadelphia made WATCHES” available at his shop “at the Corner of Front and Chestnut-streets” in Philadelphia.  Thomas Crow advised prospective customers that he made “gold and silver Watches” as well as “musical, Chamber, and plain Clocks.”  He also noted he had “removed his Shop to Market-street, opposite to William Marshall’s Tavern,” but he did not mean the Market Street in Philadelphia that would have put him in close proximity to Wood’s shop.  Instead, his advertisement identified Crow as a “CLOCK and WATCH-MAKER, at the DIAL in WILMINGTON,” Delaware, thirty miles down the Delaware River.  The two advertisers addressed different markets in their efforts to attract consumers.

Although Wood expected the majority of his customers to come from Philadelphia and its environs and Crow expected most of his customers to come from Wilmington and the surrounding area, they participated in a single media market.  Wilmington did not have its own newspaper in 1770.  Indeed, no printers published newspapers in Delaware during the colonial period.  Only after the American Revolution, in 1785, did Jacob Killen commence publication of the Delaware Gazette, the state’s first newspaper, in Wilmington.  In 1770, the Pennsylvania Gazette served as a regional newspaper for readers and advertisers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and portions of Maryland and New Jersey.  The Pennsylvania Chronicle and the Pennsylvania Journal did as well, though the Gazette had been in print for much longer and had larger circulation numbers.

Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans placed most of the advertisements for consumer goods and services that appeared in the newspapers published in Philadelphia, but not all of them.  Advertisers from Wilmington, Delaware; Burlington, New Jersey; Baltimore, Maryland; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and other towns in the region also treated those publications as their local newspapers.  When Thomas Crow inserted his advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he expected that prospective customers in and near his town would see it and respond.

August 9

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

Aug 9 1770 - 8:9:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (August 9, 1770).

“Has removed his PRINTING-OFFICE from Philadelphia to Burlington.”

In the summer of 1770, printer Isaac Collins closed his printing office in Philadelphia in favor of relocating to Burlington, New Jersey.  He announced his new venture in an advertisement in the August 9, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  David Hall and William Sellers, printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette, gave Collins’s notice a privileged place on the first page of their newspaper.  It immediately followed letters to the editor; as the first advertisement in the issue, readers were more likely to peruse it as they transitioned from news to paid notices.  This may have been a professional courtesy on the part of Hall and Sellers, though Collins’s success in Burlington stood to benefit them as well.  If Collins managed to establish a thriving business in another town then that meant one less competitor in Philadelphia.  Even though Collins called on “his Friends in other Places” to “continue their Favours,” ultimately his new endeavor depended on cultivating a local clientele in his new location.

To that end, Collins proclaimed that he possessed both the skill and the equipment to “give Satisfaction” to his customers and “merit the Approbation of those who may please to favour him with their Commands.”  He pledged that he would spare no “Care or Pains” to “perform PRINTING in as correct, expeditious, and reasonable a Manner, as those of his Profession in the adjacent Colonies.”  New York and Pennsylvania both had numerous skilled printers.  To meet the expectations of customers, he “furnished himself with a new and elegant ASSORTMENT of PRINTING MATERIALS, at a considerable Expence.”  To showcase his industrious and commitment to serving the public in his new location, he concluded by noting that “speedily will be published, The BURLINGTON ALMANACK, for the Year 1771.”  Residents of New Jersey might prefer such an edition to the alternatives published in New York and Philadelphia.  If not the first mention of an almanac for 1771 in the public prints, it was one of the first, nearly five months before the new year.  In promoting it so soon, Collins not only sought to incite demand but also to demonstrate his commitment to fulfilling all of his responsibilities as printer in a new location.  Although he hoped to turn a profit on the Burlington Almanack, publishing it was also a service to the public.

July 1

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

Jul 1 - 6:28:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 28, 1770).

“At the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron.”

Samuel Wheeler, a cutler, advised prospective clients that he “undertakes any kind of iron work that any business requires.”  In advertisement in the June 28, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he also listed a variety of items that he “makes and has for sale,” including “good scythes and sickles,” “steal stamps for carpenters or smiths,” “iron work for mills of any kind,” and “smiths work for houses.”  Wheeler listed two locations for customers to examine his merchandise and make purchases, his shop “at the sign of the Scythe, Sickle and Brand-iron” on Second Street and his house “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” in Church Alley.  Like many other artisans, Wheeler incorporated images of the items he made into the signs that marked his location.

Signs depicting scythes and sickles were a common sight in Philadelphia in 1700.  In the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, two other cutlers inserted advertisements that mentioned signs that included images of one or both tools.  James Hendricks made and sold sickles “at the sign of the Sickle” on Market Street.  Stephen Paschall also ran a shop on Market Street, where he made and sold a variety of cutlery “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle.”

These advertisements reveal both the variation in signs adopted by artisans who pursued the same occupation and the challenges they faced in identifying themselves with distinctive devices.  Hendricks chose a single item, the sickle, for his sign, while Wheeler multiplied the number of items, perhaps with the intention that the combination of scythe, sickle, and brand iron would be so distinctive that others were unlikely to adopt it.  That had not been the case with the sign that marked his home rather than his shop.  Wheeler and Paschall both mentioned signs that featured the scythe and sickle.  Other cutlers in the city may have also posted signs with this common imagery.  Signs helped to identify their workshops, but a sign alone was not necessarily sufficient to designate a business operated by a particular artisan.

June 24

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

Jun 24 - 6:21:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (June 21, 1770).

“Large quantities of sickles, stamped S. PACHALL, in imitation … of my stamp.”

For several months in the spring and summer of 1770, Stephen Paschall ran an advertisement for scythes, sickles, knives, and similar items in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Paschall made all of his wares and sold them, appropriately enough, “at the sign of the Scythe and Sickle” on Market Street in Philadelphia.  Paschall was confident in his skill, declaring that the products of his workshop “will prove as good as any made elsewhere.”

Others apparently shared this assessment, so much so that for several years counterfeit sickles attributed to Paschall circulated in Philadelphia.  He devoted half of his advertisement to describing the fraud and instructing prospective customers how to recognize authentic Paschall sickles.  He lamented that “some merchants of this city have … imported from Great Britain … and sold great quantities” of sickles “stamped S. PACHALL.”  Paschall marked his own sickles with his name, “S. PASCHALL.”  The difference could be easy to overlook:  “the letter S, between the A and C, is left out in the stamp on the English sickle.”  He deplored the unscrupulous purveyors of the counterfeit sickles for profiting off of his name and reputation when selling inferior goods, “many of which have been brought to me by farmers to alter.”  To add insult to injury, Paschall often found himself in the position of repairing sickles after farmers purchased them because they had been duped by the counterfeit mark.  He experienced some chagrin that those farmers confided that they “bought them for my make” only to discover “the workmanship is by no means equal to those formerly made by me.”

In addition to rehabilitating his own reputation, Paschall considered it important to bring this deception to public notice because he was in the process of “establishing my son in the same business (who is an apprentice to me).”  He defended his work not only for his own benefit but to safeguard the prospects of the next generation following the family business.

Labels, stamps, and other means of marking goods played an important role in marketing some products in the eighteenth century, but they could also be abused, adapted, and deployed to confuse consumers.  Paschall and others used newspaper advertisements to inform the public of this trickery, simultaneously protecting their own business interests and providing a service to unsuspecting consumers.