November 10

GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford

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

Supplement to the Boston Evening-Post (November 10, 1766).

“A fine assortment of neat pinchbeck shoe-buckles.”

As I read this advertisement, I was overwhelmed by the variety of goods imported in the Thames by Captain Watt and offered for sale by “Baker & Bridgham In Union Street.” The assortment of goods ranged from fabrics such as satins and flannels to accessories such as buckles and buttons.

I was intrigued by the description of the shoe buckles made of pinchbeck. Pinchbeck, a form of brass, was commonly used to design accessories during the colonial era. An alloy of copper and zinc, pinchbeck resembled gold in its appearance. At first, many colonists might have thought that pinchbeck was real gold because of its bright and polished image. However, pinchbeck was a “counterfeit” of gold regularly used to craft various jewelry and other adornments, including rings, necklaces, earrings, brooches and shoe buckles.

Colonial smiths and jewelers designed items made of pinchbeck for customers, who asked for their jewelry and accessories to be specific shapes, include precious stones, or have their name engraved. However, there were other colonists who preferred to take advantage of the already stocked and readymade items that were available from shopkeepers like Baker and Bridgham.



The November 10, 1766, issue of the Boston Evening-Post was accompanied by an advertising supplement. Approximately half of the regular issue already consisted of advertising, but T. and J. Fleet sold more advertisements than the issue could contain. As was often the case with colonial newspapers, this issue and its supplement functioned as a delivery mechanism for advertising more than as a means of delivering news items. Rather than a mixture of legal notices and other sorts of advertising that transmitted news and announcements, almost every advertisement that appeared in the supplement promoted consumer goods and services. A couple of dozen merchants and shopkeepers enticed readers in Boston to desire and purchase the merchandise they stocked.

This supplement demonstrates one of the disadvantages of working with digitized sources. The size of the page on which it was printed appears to be different than the broadsheet for the regular issue, but the database does not provide sufficient metadata (or any sort of measurements at all) to make that determination. Each page of the regular issue included three columns, but both pages of the supplement had four. When downloading the entire issue as a PDF, the supplement appears wider, but there’s no way to know if the relative proportions accurately represent the original sources without consulting those sources themselves. This hinders our ability to understand some of the ways that colonists might have interacted with the advertising supplement as a material text.

The content of the advertisements does not tell the entire story. Was the supplement indeed printed on a larger sheet? If so, why? Would it have been simply to squeeze in all the remaining advertisements? Or was that a strategy the Fleets employed to call special attention to the advertisements they published, perhaps making their newspaper more attractive to other advertisers (and, in turn, generating more revenues)? Is there evidence that the supplement was folded in order to fit inside the original issue and delivered at the same time? The digitized images of the November 10 issue and its supplement do not indicate the answers to these questions. Digital surrogates simultaneously allow for greater access to historical sources and conceal some of the important attributes of the originals.

March 4


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

Mar 4 - 3:3:1766 New-York Mercury
New-York Mercury (March 3, 1766).

“Making or mending any Kind of Diamond or enameled Work.”

Charles Oliver Bruff’s advertisement offers a wide variety of popular jewelry to be made and mended. Jewelry made between 1714 and 1847 comes from the Georgian Era. It is important to note that jewelry was not made the same way it is today. According to the International Gem Society, the process was far more labor-intensive. Gold and metal ingots needed to be rolled into thin sheets before they could be formed into the popular styles of the time.

Bruff chose to market a variety of popular merchandise, but one that is specifically interesting is pinchbeck buckles. Pinchbeck was a material commonly used that looks like gold but is much more affordable. Oliver’s choice to advertise this along with more expensive jewelry is interesting because it shows that he was trying to appeal to people of many different economic backgrounds. Jewelry was primarily a luxury of the elite society, but Oliver’s advertisement alludes to the inclusion of customers from other economic statuses.



Of all the possible items in Bruff’s advertisement that Trevor chose to investigate, he selected pinchbeck buckles. That, in turn, led me to a fascinating discovery when I clicked the hyperlink to a dictionary definition of “pinchbeck” that he included to accompany his commentary for today. The first entry refers explicitly to “the Jewellery Way” (as Bruff put it): “an alloy of copper and zinc used especially to imitate gold in jewelry.”

A second entry, however, indicates that “pinchbeck” could also mean “something counterfeit or spurious.” It seems unlikely that Bruff intended to suggest that his buckles should be considered inferior in any way, but colonial consumers would have known that pinchbeck buckles were made of something other than gold (especially since Bruff promised to sell them “cheap by the dozen”).

A variety of scholars – including those who study consumer culture, material culture, manners, and reputation – have argued that assessing the dress and comportment of others became a cultural preoccupation in the eighteenth century. Especially as greater numbers of people of diverse statuses possessed an increasing array of goods as the consumer revolution progressed, colonists attempted to distinguish the truly genteel from those who merely simulated gentility. Colonists carefully observed each other to see if inner character matched an individual’s outward appearance.

In that context, pinchbeck buckles potentially presented a bit of a conundrum. What did it say about someone who wore accoutrements that looked like gold all while knowing that the appearance of the more costly metal misrepresented the true nature of the alloy that was actually used? Could that be interpreted as a reflection on one’s own character? Social mobility was fraught with such dilemmas in the eighteenth century.