September 11

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

Sep 11 - 9:8:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 8, 1768).

He has been mistaken for a Dancing-Master, whose Behaviour to his Scholars gave just Offence.”

Peter Vianey needed to do some damage control. Rumors had reached the itinerant dancing master that he had been confused for another dancing master, one known for having previously committed some sort of transgressions toward his students. Realizing that hearsay could scare away prospective clients, Vianey opted to address this case of mistaken identity in the public prints. He published an advertisement that did not look much different from those of his counterparts, except for the final paragraph. “Having been informed,” Vianey fretted, “that he has been mistaken for a Dancing-Master, whose Behaviour to his Scholars gave just Offence in this City some Years ago, he takes the Liberty to inform those who are not acquainted with him, that he never was in this Country, till the Year 1764.” Exercising discretion, Vianey did not offer any further details about the unsavory behavior of the other dancing master, a decision further calculated not to have another’s infractions attached to his name. After all, his ability to attract clients depended on his ability to establish and maintain a good reputation. To that end, he requested that “all who know him, will do him the Justice to testify that his Conduct has ever been regular and unexceptionable.” The only specific detail that mattered was that Vianey had only recently arrived, not only in New York but also in the colonies. His arrival was too recent for him to have been the culprit of whatever scandalous deeds had taken place several years earlier.

In Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York, Serena Zabin notes that “[a]t any time a dancing master might become an object of suspicion” because of the ambiguous status they held in colonial society. Dancing masters taught genteel conduct to their clients – in Vianey’s case, music and fencing in addition to dancing – but they were not themselves members of the genteel ranks. As Zabin explains, dancing masters “had to tread a social tightrope,” exhibiting sufficient gentility to avoid being considered a disreputable fraud but not so much as to confuse the distinctions in status that separated the instructors who provided a service and the students that paid their fees.[1] Vianey, like any other dancing master, was already in a difficult position when it came to marketing his lessons, an enterprise that made his identity, character, and status just as much the center of attention as the skills “discoverable in his Scholars” that emerged via his tutelage. Resurrecting old gossip and attributing misconduct to him only compounded his difficulties. Rather than pretend that he had not heard the malicious tales, Vianey vigorously defended his reputation in newspaper advertisements, requesting that others confirm that he was not the scoundrel that some mistakenly imagined.

**********

[1] Serena Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 103, 105.