January 25

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

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Packet (January 25, 1773).

“A LAWYER … lent the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES … to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot.”

A curious story appeared among the advertisements in the supplement that accompanied the January 25, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, a story that may have been a complete fiction designed to incite interest in the forthcoming publication of “the FOURTH VOLUME of the AMERICAN EDITION of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND.”  The story concerned an unnamed lawyer seeking the return of a London edition that he lent “to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot,” but that lawyer and the missing book may very well have been creations of Robert Bell, a bookseller and publisher known for his innovative marketing strategies and flamboyant personality.  During the final third of the eighteenth century, Bell became one of the most vocal proponents of creating an American literary market, launching inventive advertising campaigns.

This particular advertisement described a lawyer who loaned the book and asked that the borrower “return it as soon as possible to ROBERT BELL, Bookseller, at the late Union Library in Third-street.”  The narrator of the advertisement, which may have been either Bell or the lawyer, stated that there was “reason to surmise the said fourth volume hath been lent to several persons since it left the proprietor’s library.”  Focus then shifted to anyone who had consulted the loaned-but-not-returned copy of the book.  “All the world assert it is a pity,” the narrator lamented, “that generosity should suffer; therefore it is hoped, even the second, third or fourth borrower possesseth integrity enough” to alert Bell about the whereabouts of the missing book.  Contending that so many readers consulted that copy of the book suggested both its utility and popularity.

That set the stage for the nota bene that appeared at the end of the advertisement.  The narrator announced that “Sometime in February” the fourth volume of the American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries “will be ready for the subscribers.”  Bell just happened to be the publisher of that project, having advertised and distributed the first three volumes in 1771 and 1772.  (The title page for the fourth volume says 1772, but this advertisement suggests that may have been an error and that Bell actually released the fourth volume in early 1773.)  Although an extensive list of subscribers appeared before the title page of the fourth volume, Bell may have anticipated printing surplus copies to sell to customers who had not subscribed in advance.  Whether or not there was any truth to the story of the lawyer who loaned out a London edition of the book, Bell seems to have tried to generate even more interest in the forthcoming publication of his American edition.

January 18

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

Pennsylvania Packet (January 18, 1773).

“AN ADDRESS TO THE INHABITANTS OF THE BRITISH SETTLEMENTS IN AMERICA, UPON SLAVE-KEEPING.”

In January 1773, John Dunlap, printer of the Pennsylvania Packet, announced that An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping, a work attributed to Benjamin Rush, was “Just published” and available for sale.  Dunlap leveraged his access to the press to give the announcement special prominence in his newspaper, treating it as an editorial rather than an advertisement.

Consider how Dunlap organized the contents of the January 18, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet and the supplement that accompanied it.  In the standard issue, news items and editorials appeared on the first two pages, followed by advertising on the last two pages.  Similarly, the two-page supplement began with two columns of news and the remainder of the content consisted of advertising.  Dunlap’s announcement masqueraded as an editorial that ran in the first column of the second page and overflowed into the next column, followed by news from London, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia.  The printer inserted an excerpt from the pamphlet, hoping to entice readers to want more and purchase their own copies.  In giving prospective customers an overview of the essay, Dunlap noted that the “Author of the above Address after having showed the inconsistency of Slave-keeping with the principles of humanity – justice – good policy and religion; concludes as follows.”  After reading that conclusion, prospective customers could acquire the pamphlet and examine the various arguments about humanity, justice, good policy, and religion for themselves.  In treating this announcement as an editorial or news item, Dunlap adopted a strategy sometimes deployed by other printers to promote books and pamphlets they published.

Whatever the conclusions reached in the Address … upon Slave-Keeping, Dunlap apparently did not find them sufficiently convincing to alter his policies concerning the kinds of advertising that he printed in the Pennsylvania Packet.  Two advertisements about enslaved people appeared on the facing page, one offering a “HEALTHY country bred NEGRO LAD” for sale and the other seeking to hire a “SMART, active WHITE or NEGRO BOY … to wait on table and go on errands.”  Candidates for that position included enslaved youths who did the work while their enslavers received the wages.  An advertisement in the supplement described a “Negro Fellow named LONDON” who liberated himself by running away from his enslaver in Baltimore and offered a reward for his capture and return.  Even as Dunlap treated the conclusion of the Address … upon Slave-Keeping as an editorial intended to arouse interest in a pamphlet he sold, he generated revenue by printing and disseminating advertisements that perpetuated slavery.

January 11

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

Pennsylvania Packet (January 11, 1773).

“THOMAS HALE … CONTINUES to hang BELLS.”

When Thomas Hale, a carpenter, arrived in Philadelphia from London in the late 1760s, he placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle to advise prospective customers that he “undertakers the Business of hanging Bells through all the Apartments of Houses.”  A woodcut depicting a bell adorned his advertisement.  Hale acknowledged that he was “a Stranger” in the city, but asserted that “any Person can be credibly assured of his Integrity.”

Hale was no longer “a Stranger” when he inserted a similar advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet in January 1773.  He reminded readers that he “CONTINUES to hang BELLS through all the apartments of houses, in the most neat and lasting manner.”  He once again adorned his advertisement with an image of a bell, likely the same woodcut from his advertisement in 1767.  Hale sought a return on his initial investment in commissioning the woodcut, using it to draw attention to his notice.  Elsewhere in the January 11 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, an image of a ship in the masthead was the only other image.  The bell certainly distinguished Hale’s advertisement from others.  The two-page supplement that accompanied that issue featured two woodcuts, both of them stock images of runaway indentured servants provided by the printer.  Among the merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who placed notices, Hale was the only advertiser who incorporated an image, humble through it was, directly linked to the business he operated.

If it was the same woodcut that Hale used in his advertisement more than half a decade earlier, that suggests that he collected it from the printing office and retained possession of it after he discontinued his previous advertisement.  The same week that he advertised in the Pennsylvania Packet he also ran an advertisement with identical copy but no image in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the newspaper that previously carried his advertisement with the woodcut of the bell.  Including an image enhanced an advertisement, but when Hale opted to advertise in more than one newspaper, he had to make a choice about which one should feature the image … or invest in a second woodcut.  He apparently did not consider the image so essential to his business that he needed to make the additional investment.  It was one of several choices that he made when budgeting for marketing, including the length of his advertisement and where to publish it.  For instance, he did not insert it in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Pennsylvania Journal, or the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, the other newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time.  With limited resources to devote to marketing, Hale decided to get more use out of the woodcut in one newspaper and supplement that advertisement with a notice in a second newspaper.

December 7

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

Pennsylvania Packet (December 7, 1772).

“At the sign of the Spinning Wheel.”

In December 1772, James Cunning took the pages of the Pennsylvania Packet to advertise the “large assortment of Dry Goods” available at his shop on Market Street in Philadelphia.  He took the opportunity to express his “grateful acknowledgments to his friends and customers,” thanking them for “the many obliging favours he has received since he first commenced business.”  In order to “merit a continuance of their favours,” Cunning declared that he would set favorable “terms” for both wholesale and retail sales.  Those “terms” certainly included price and likely credit as well.  They may have also included packaging, delivery, and other services.

Cunning advised readers that they would find his shop “At the sign of the Spinning Wheel.”  To strengthen the association between that symbol of industriousness and his business, Cunning adorned his advertisement with a woodcut that depicted a spinning wheel.  Larger than the stock images of vessels at sea and horses in the upper left corners of half a dozen advertisements in the December 7 issue and its supplement, the spinning wheel accounted for more than half the space occupied by Cunning’s advertisement.  That represented significant expense for Cunning, first for commissioning a woodcut tied to his business and for his exclusive use, then for the space required to publish it.  Printers charged by the amount of space, not the number of words.

Cunning apparently considered including the image in his notices worth the expense, especially since he continued to use it when placing new advertisements.  The image first appeared in advertisements Cunning inserted in the Pennsylvania Journal in October 1771.  By the end of the month, he transferred the woodcut to the printing offices of the newly-launched Pennsylvania Packet.  It appeared in an advertisement in the inaugural issue.  More than a year later, Cunning included the image in a new advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet, convinced that it would result in a satisfactory return on his investment in commissioning it.  He could have retired the image after it appeared in that initial run of advertising if he did not believe that it resulted in greater attention for his business.  That he used it again suggests that he determined that image and text together helped to draw “friends and customers” to his shop.

September 14

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

Pennsylvania Packet (September 14, 1772).

“The curious in books … are requested to call for the Catalogue.”

An advertisement in the September 14, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet invited readers to visit “the Book-Store of WILLIAM WOODHOUSE” to receive a free copy of “A CATALOGUE OF A COLLECTION OF NEW AND OLD BOOKS, In all the Arts and Sciences, and in various Languages.”  The advertisement indicates that the lengthy title of the catalog included “Also, as large quantity of entertaining Novels, with the lowest price printed to each book.”  At a glance, it appears that Woodhouse was responsible for compiling and promoting this catalog, but closer inspection reveals that Woodhouse almost certainly collaborated with another bookseller, Robert Bell.

Ten months later, Bell distributed a catalog that replicated the title of the catalog advertised in September 1772, with the exception of adding his name: “ROBERT BELL’s SALE CATALOGUE Of a COLLECTION of NEW AND OLD BOOK, In all the Arts and Sciences, and in various Languages, Also, a large Quantity of entertaining NOVELS; with the lowest Price printed to each BOOK; NOW SELLING, At the BOOK-STORE of WILLIAM WOODHOUSE, Bookseller, Stationer, and Bookbinder, in Front-street, near Chestnut-street, Philadelphia.”  Woodhouse apparently provided retail space for Bell in both 1772 and 1773.

Yet more than merely identical titles testify to Bell’s role in producing and marketing the catalog.  The newspaper advertisement concluded with a nota bene that declared, “In this Collection are many uncommon BOOKS, seldom to be found;—therefore, the curious in books—the Directors of Libraries—and all others, that delight in the food of the mind, are requested to call for the Catalogue at said WOODHOUSE’S, as above.”  Those flourishes, especially “the curious in books” and “food of the mind,” echoed the language that the flamboyant Bell deployed in other advertisements.  For instance, he previously marketed “ROBERTSON’S celebrated History of CHARLES the Fifth” to “ALL Gentlemen that possess a sentimental TASTE.”

Bell was one of the most innovative and influential American booksellers and publishers of the eighteenth century.  Inserting the “lowest price” in the entry for each book in the catalog distinguished it from other catalogs that merely listed authors, titles, and, sometimes, sizes ranging from folio to quarto to octavo to duodecimo.  In addition, Bell supplemented newspaper advertisements and catalogs with broadsides and subscription notices, creating savvy marketing campaigns that incorporated multiple media to entice colonizers to become consumers of the books that he hawked.

September 7

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

Pennsylvania Packet (September 7, 1772).

“THE BURLINGTON ALMANACK … IS JUST PUBLISHED.”

As they perused the September 7, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, readers encountered a sign that fall would soon arrive.  Isaac Collins announced that the Burlington Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord, 1773 “IS JUST PUBLISHED, and to be SOLD” at his printing office in Burlington, New Jersey.  Hoping to entice customers, Collins provided a list of the “entertaining and useful” contents “Besides the usual Astronomical Calculation.”  It was one of the first advertisements for almanacs for 1773 that appeared in colonial newspapers, an early entry in an annual ritual for printers throughout the colonies.

Publishing almanacs generated significant revenues for printers.  Some produced several titles in their printing offices, catering to the preferences and brand loyalty of customers who purchased these handy reference manuals year after year.  Marketing began late in the summer or early in the fall, often with printers declaring their intentions to print almanacs.  In such instances, they encouraged readers to anticipate the publication of their favorite titles and look for additional advertisements alerting them when those almanacs were available to purchase.  Collins dispensed with the waiting period.  He made the Burlington Almanack available immediately, perhaps hoping to attract customers whom he suspected would choose more popular and familiar alternatives when other printers began marketing and printing them. After all, he first published the Burlington Almanack two years earlier, but others had annual editions dating back decades.  Just five days before Collins’s advertisement ran in the Pennsylvania Packet, David Hall and William Sellers ran a brief advertisement about the popular “POOR RICHARD’S ALMANACK for 1773,” just three lines, in their own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.  They announced that copies would go on sale the following day.

The number and frequency of advertisements for almanacs increased throughout the fall as printers shared their plans for publishing them and informed customers when they went to press.  Some printers inserted brief notices about popular titles, as Hall and Sellers did.  Other adopted the same strategy as Collins, disseminating lengthy descriptions of the “entertaining and useful matter” between the covers of their almanacs.  Such material became even more important in marketing almanacs after the arrival of the new year.  Printers often had surplus copies that they advertised in the winter and into the spring, the number and frequency tapering off.  The “Astronomical Calculations” became obsolete with each passing week and month, but the essays, poetry, remedies, and other contents retained their value throughout the year.

Collins concluded his advertisement with a note that he “performs Printing in its various branches” and sold a “a variety of Books and Stationary, Drugs and Medicines.”  Publishing almanacs accounted for only one of several revenue streams at his printing office, but an important one.  Especially with effective marketing, printing almanacs could be quite lucrative for colonial printers.

August 17

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Packet (August 17, 1772).

“He came on redemption, and was disappointed in meeting his expected friend.”

James Gordon found himself in an unanticipated situation when he migrated from Londonderry to Philadelphia in the summer of 1772.  The “WRITING-MASTER AND ACCOMPTANT” declared that he “came on redemption, and was disappointed in meeting his expected friend.”  In other words, he did not pay his passage in advance, nor did he sign an indenture and agree to work for a set number of years in exchange for transportation across the Atlantic.  Instead, Gordon became a redemptioner.  Compared to indentured servants who signed contracts that outlined their commitments in advance of departing European ports, redemptioners were “redeemed” by colonizers who paid their passage upon arrival.  Many redemptioners arranged in advance for family and friends to redeem them.  Others, however, sailed without knowing who might redeem them, sold into indentured servitude after crossing the Atlantic.  That system was especially popular with German-speaking migrants.  Newspapers published in Philadelphia ran the greatest numbers of advertisements offering redemptioners for sale.

Gordon apparently thought that a friend would redeem him when he arrived in Philadelphia, though the friend may not have been aware of that arrangement.  Whatever the circumstances, he placed an advertisement seeking a patron to redeem him by paying for his passage and hiring him “as a Clerk or Schoolmaster.”  Gordon expressed his willingness to work for “any Gentleman, Merchant, Farmer, or other, in any part of the province of Pennsylvania, or New-Jersey.”  If no one who wanted to hire him as a clerk or schoolmaster were to “pay his redemption,” he could be redeemed by someone who had him do other kinds of work that Gordon likely would have found much less agreeable.

To avoid that possibility, Gordon added a nota bene in which he attempted to promote the qualities that made him a good schoolmaster and clerk while simultaneously not scaring off prospective employers by overselling himself.  Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to impress them with his honesty.  “As the generality of advertisers are pleased to embellish their abilities with the most exalted encomiums,” he declared, “the above Gordon, as to that point inclines to be silent, only, that by his behaviour, method of teaching, (or clerkmanship) and assiduity, flatters himself of meriting the kind approbation of any employer.”  Gordon hoped that his advertisement would convince someone would hire him as a schoolmaster or clerk.  Otherwise, he faced the prospects of the owner or captain of the vessel that carried him across the ocean would allow others to “pay his redemption” and employ him as they saw fit.  Gordon may have thought that he had a deal in place when he left Londonderry, but redemption turned out to be a gamble for the writing master and clerk.

August 5

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Gazette (August 5, 1772).

“Probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”

Jem, a “Mulattoe SLAVE,” made his escape during the night of July 15, 1772, liberating himself from Thomas May in Elk Forge, Maryland.  In his efforts to capture Jem and return him to enslavement, May ran an advertisement in which he described Jem as a “cunning ingenious fellow” who “probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”  Jem possessed several skills that may have helped him elude May, but those skills also made him even more valuable to the enslaver.  In addition to being able to read “pretty well” and speak Dutch, Jem was a “good workman in a forge, either in finery or chafery, can do any kind of smith’s or carpenter’s work, necessary about a forge, [and] can also do any kind of farming business.”  May also described the clothes that Jem wore when he liberated himself.  No doubt Jem would have offered other details had he been given an opportunity to publish his own narrative.  Even in Jem’s absence, May exerted control over his depiction in the public prints.

Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote (August 4, 1772).

May also made decisions about how widely to disseminate advertisements describing Jem and offering “FIVE POUNDS REWARD” for capturing him.  His advertisement appeared in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on August 5.  Of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time, those had the longest publication history.  That likely gave May confidence that those newspapers circulated to many readers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.  Apparently, however, he did not consider that sufficient.  May was so invested in capturing and returning Jem to enslavement at the forge that he also placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on August 8 and the Pennsylvania Packet on August 10.  Considering the skills that Jem possessed, May probably thought it well worth the fees to place notices in all four English-language newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time.  He even took advantage of the translation services that Henry Miller, printer of the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, offered to advertisers in a nota bene that appeared at the bottom of the masthead.  May’s advertisement describing Jem ran in that newspaper on August 4, further increasing the number of colonizers who might read it, carefully observe Black men they encountered, and participate in capturing the fugitive seeking freedom.  Thomas May expended significant money and effort in attempting to re-enslave Jem, using the power of the press to overcome the various advantages Jem sought to use to his own benefit.

June 17

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

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Packet (June 15, 1772).

“Sweeping brushes as 19 s. per dozen, and lower by the half or whole gross.”

John Hannah described himself as a “WHOLESALE AND RETAIL BRUSHMAKER” in an advertisement that appeared in the supplement that accompanied the June 15, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  Although he stocked “a good assortment of painting brushes” and “a general assortment of bone brushes” that he “imported in the last vessels from England and Holland,” he focused on the items that he produced in his own shop “AT THE HOG, … At the north-east corner of Second and Chestnut Streets” in Philadelphia.  A woodcut depicting a boar, the bristles on the crest of its back evident, adorned his advertisement.

Hannah declared that he “made and manufactured” all kinds of brushes “in the best manner” at his shop, assisted by “the best hands in the city.”  The quality of his brushes derived from both the materials, “a large and general assortment of Bristles” imported from Europe, and the skills of those who worked in his shop.  In addition to quality, Hannah promoted low prices, especially for wholesale transactions.  He proclaimed that he “can sell on as reasonable terms as any manufacturer in the province,” challenging prospective customers to compare his prices to those set by his competitors. To demonstrate that he did indeed offer good bargains, he listed some of his prices.  Hannah sold a dozen sweeping brushes for nineteen shillings.  He offered discounts to buyers who purchased in greater volume.  Similarly, he charged four shilling for a dozen “weavers brushes” and “lower by the half or whole gross.”  That he did not specify how deeply he discounted such purchases suggested that customers could negotiate the prices.

Hannah incorporated several appeals into his advertisement.  He emphasized the quality of his finished product as well as the skills of the workers who labored in his shop.  He promoted the range of choices available to customers.  He also promised the lowest prices in the colony, listing his prices and offering discounts to retailers and others who purchased large quantities of brushes.  To draw attention to his advertisement, he included a woodcut that resembled the sign that marked the location of his shop, a rudimentary form of branding his business.

June 8

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

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Packet (June 8, 1772).

“JOSEPH STANSBURY, Hath just imported … GLASS AND EARTHEN WARES.”

Molly Torres, a student in my Revolutionary America class in Fall 2021, selected this advertisement that Joseph Stansbury placed in the June 8, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  It prompted a conversation about the many trajectories for learning about the past presented by each advertisement.  In most instances, I encouraged students to focus on a particular item, such as tea, and how it helped us understand commerce, politics, or daily life in the era of the American Revolution.  I cautioned that examining individual advertisers would usually be more difficult, especially for students with limited experience undertaking research that integrated primary and secondary sources.  Many advertisers left behind few traces beyond their newspaper notices.  Some advertisers, however were so famous … or infamous … that more information about them was readily available to novice researchers.

Such was the case with Joseph Stansbury, infamous as the “main intercessory between Benedict Arnold and John André.”  According to an online exhibit about “Spy Letters of the American Revolution” sponsored by the William L. Clements Library, Stansbury held a variety of positions, including commissioner of the city watch, during the British occupation of Philadelphia.  He remained in the city when the British withdrew, though Stansbury traveled to New York “specifically to meet with André about Arnold.”  He did not stay in the city long, not wanting to raise suspicions about his loyalties upon returning to Philadelphia.  Upon his return, he received a letter with instructions from the British officer and then became “the mediator between the communications of Arnold and André.”  They corresponded in cipher, using identical copies of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England as keys for decoding their letters.

Researching this advertisement about a “LARGE AND CAPITAL ASSORTMENT OF GLASS AND EARTHEN WARES of the most approved kinds” took Molly in unexpected directions.  Neither of us anticipated that working on this project would lead to learning more about espionage during the American Revolution or the nation’s most infamous traitor and his accomplices.  Examining the Clements Library’s online exhibition also gave us an opportunity to discuss archives, special collections, and the process of conducting more sustained research.  As I’ve previously written, one of my favorite parts of inviting students to serve as guest curators of the Adverts 250 Project is discovering where their research will take us once they select which advertisements to feature.  That is so much more interesting than if I unilaterally set the syllabus at the beginning of the semester and we did not deviate from it.