April 28

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (April 28, 1769).

“A SCHOOL for teaching young MASTERS and MISSES, DANCING and GOOD MANNERS.”

Peter Curtis took out an advertisement in the April 28, 1769, edition of the New Hampshire Gazette to advertise his dance school. This advertisement is particularly interesting because it demonstrates one of the ways that people found entertainment in the eighteenth century. The lives of colonists during the revolutionary era were not focused only on work and survival. The services that Peter Curtis offered might have been a great way for people to take a break and learn how to dance. The profession of dance master could be quite rewarding because, according to an online exhibition from the American Antiquarian Society, these dances were difficult to master and would require many classes. However, having the time and money to attend a dance class would have been a luxury that mostly the middling sort and elites would have been able to take advantage of. In another part of this advertisement that is interesting Curtis states that he will also teach good manners. This would be a must for elites who wanted their children to learn the proper way to behave themselves when in the company of other affluent members of society. A common way that people asserted their affluence was through consumer culture, but being able to dance and have well-mannered children also accomplished the same goal.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

In this advertisement Peter Curtis announced that he “has again opened a SCHOOL for teaching young MASTERS and MISSES, DANCING and GOOD MANNERS.” In declaring that he had “again opened a SCHOOL,” he assumed that readers and prospective clients were already aware of his previous endeavors as a dancing master. The brevity of his advertisement, especially compared to another he previously inserted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, suggests that was indeed the case. For instance, Curtis did not even state his location; he instead expected that others knew where to find his dancing school. In an advertisement that ran almost two years earlier, however, when Curtis launched that enterprise, he informed residents of Portsmouth that “he proposes to open a DANCING SCHOOL, at the House where the late Mr. David Horney kept a Tavern, and opposite Mr. John Stavers.” Over the course of a couple of years, his school became so familiar that Curtis no longer considered it necessary to give directions.

The dancing master himself had also become familiar in the community, so much so that he no longer underscored one of his most important credentials. When he first opened his school he introduced himself in the public prints as “Peter Curtis, From PARIS.” After outlining his services, he noted that he “has resided fifteen Years in France; he will teach them in the most polite and genteel Manner.” In so doing, he linked the experience he gained living and working in France with gentility and proper comportment. He encouraged prospective clients to desire the additional cachet of employing a dancing master with connections to Paris, at least when he first marketed his services in a community as yet unfamiliar with him. Over time, however, he apparently decided that he had established such a reputation in Portsmouth that he no longer needed to explicitly attach himself to the cosmopolitan French center of fashion and manners.

That Curtis once again advertised in the New-Hampshire Gazette suggests that he experiences some success in Portsmouth and its environs. Dancing masters were notorious for being itinerant in eighteenth-century America. Curtis apparently attracted enough clients and cultivated sufficient demand that he planned to remain in the relatively small port for another season rather than seek his fortune in New York or Philadelphia or any of the larger cities in the colonies. Even beyond urban centers, genteel colonists (and those who aspired to gentility) considered dancing and the manners associated with the pastime an important signifier of their status.

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:19:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (June 19, 1767).

“He proposes to open a DANCING SCHOOL.”

Peter Curtis wished to open a dancing school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and inserted an advertisement to that effect in the local newspaper. In the decade before the Revolution, dancing masters frequently advertised their services in newspapers published in the largest port cities, especially Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. Fewer of them, however, placed notices proposing to open schools or teach private lessons in smaller towns. Curtis’s advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette was rather out of the ordinary.

Still, Curtis must have suspected that he could cultivate a market for his skills in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. After all, the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” he addressed in his advertisement participated in the same consumer culture as their counterparts in major port cities. Many colonists adopted various consumption practices – outfitting themselves in the latest styles and displaying fashionable furnishings and housewares – to demonstrate they belonged among the ranks of the genteel. Yet possessions alone did not guarantee that others would acknowledge the gentility of those who acquired them. Personal comportment became a measure for distinguishing the truly genteel from crass pretenders who merely made purchases. Manners, conversation, and dancing, among other pursuits, all played a role. Dancing well, completing the latest steps with grace while interacting easily with others in attendance at social gatherings, testified to an individual’s inner refinement that could not be counterfeited by wearing the right sorts of apparel and adornments. To that end, Curtis pledged to teach his pupils “in the most polite and genteel Manner.”

The colonial gentry in the major port cities availed themselves of lessons from dancing masters because they wished to assert that they were as cosmopolitan as their cousins in London. Other residents sought social mobility; they identified dancing as a means of demonstrating their own refinement matched their elite neighnors. For both, anxiety provided motivation. Curtis’s advertisement suggests that interest in dancing as a means of exhibiting refinement was not limited to urban ports in early America. Instead, with the help of advertisements to incite demand, it filtered out to smaller cities, like Portsmouth, and beyond. Curtis solicited customers “within Twenty Miles,” pledging to visit their homes for private lessons. He believed that some residents in the countryside, especially the “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” considered the local elite and who wanted to safeguard that position, could be convinced that they desired to become as cosmopolitan and refined as the better sorts in colonial cities.