February 5

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

New-York Journal (February 2, 1769).

“PETER VIANEY, Fencing and Dancing Master.”

Peter Vianey’s advertisement that ran in the New-York Journal for four weeks in late January and early February 1769 was notable for its brevity. The fencing and dancing master announced that he had recovered from an illness that had forced him to decline teaching for three weeks. Now that he was feeling better, he intended to provide lessons once again, both public and private to suit the desires of his clients.

The tone of this notice differed significantly from the one he had placed in the same newspaper just a few months earlier. In September 1768, he composed a lengthier notice to inform readers that he “CONTINUES to teach Music, Fencing and Dancing.” He listed his rates and described his satisfied pupils. Finally, he broached the most important – an uncomfortable – topic that he needed to address in his advertisement, an attack on his reputation. He lamented that he had been “mistaken for a Dancing-Master, whose Behaviour to his Scholars gave just Offence in this City some Years ago.” He explained that he had not even resided in the colonies that the time the offenses had occurred. Furthermore, he called on “all who know him … to testify that his conduct has ever been regular and unexceptionable.” Dancing masters were often suspect figures in early America, in part because many tended to be itinerant. That prevented them from establishing reputations based on years of interacting with members of the community. In addition, their occupation required them to come into close physical contact with their pupils, an especially problematic situation when teaching pupils of the opposite sex. Finally, dancing masters taught skills that colonists needed to demonstrate their own status and gentility, yet the instructors were not themselves from among the ranks of the genteel. This slippage often raised suspicions about their character. Even if Vianey had always comported himself with utmost decorum, his previous advertisement demonstrated that he was susceptible to rumors and accusations that could disrupt or even terminate his ability to teach in the local market.

Yet his shorter advertisement indicated that he believed he had rehabilitated his reputation. Except for the short break caused by his illness, he had returned to offering lessons. Perhaps the advertisement defending his honor had been effective. Perhaps friends, acquaintances, and students heeded his call to testify to his good character. Within a few months, he no longer felt much need to do much marketing at all. He merely announced that he would soon return to teaching after a brief hiatus due to an illness: no descriptions of the dance he taught and no commentary on his skills or character. Apparently, Vianey believed all of that had been settled satisfactorily among the public.

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.