What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A CONCERT … For the Benefit of a respectable but distressed Family of ORPHANS.”
An advertisement in the April 11, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal invited readers to participate in a philanthropic venture intended to aid children in need. On the following Wednesday, the advertisement announced, “A CONCERT Of Vocal and Instrumental MUSICK For the Benefit of a respectable but distressed Family of ORPHANS” would take place at Bolton’s Tavern. Those who wished to attend could purchase tickets in advance.
Altruism, however, did not seem to be the sole motivation for planning or attending this concert. Those involved in the venture performed their status (or the status they aspired to achieve) in the community at the same time that the musicians performed for their entertainment. The newspaper notice declared that “several LADIES of DISTINCTION” determined that the “Family of ORPHANS” merited assistance. Readers who purchased tickets and attended the concert could join the ranks of those elite patrons of unfortunate orphans, at least temporarily during the performance at Bolton’s Tavern. The concert presented an opportunity to be seen by others who also supported the cause and would later remember who else attended. Indeed, the advertisement challenged “every Person of Sensibility and Benevolence” to come to the aid of the orphans by attending the concert. Participating in this endeavor “For the Benefit” of an impoverished family also accrued benefits to those who purchased tickets.
The advertisement also commented on the status of the orphans whose plight inspired “LADIES of DISTINCTION” in New York to intervene on their behalf. Those orphans, the advertisement assured readers, were indeed deserving of such charity, being “respectable but distressed.” That phrase paralleled the invocation of “Sensibility and Benevolence” deployed to describe those who might attend the concert. Both phrases suggested that philanthropy involved more than giving to others who found themselves in adverse conditions. Instead, the circumstances of how this “Family of ORPHANS” came to require charity as well as the ability of benefactors to discern who warranted assistance (and who did not deserve their attention) each shaped attitudes and expectations about the concert at Bolton’s Tavern.