October 10

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

Oct 10 - 10:10:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (October 10, 1769).

“Will be READ, A Ballad OPERA.”

Advertisements in colonial newspapers reveal aspects of popular culture in colonial America, everything from fireworks displays to stage performances. Some of them also allow us to trace the routes traveled by itinerant performers who moved from town to town. A series of advertisements inserted in several newspapers published in New England in the fall of 1769, for instance, reveal the itinerary of “a PERSON who has READ and SUNG in most of the great Towns in AMERICA.” In September, he performed a one-man rendition of The Beggar’s Opera in both Providence (advertised in the Providence Gazette) and Boston (advertised in the Boston Chronicle and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter). He soon moved on to Salem, where he advertised a different show in the Essex Gazette in October.

For this performance, he read “A Ballad OPERA, call’d Damon & Phillida.” The delivery remained the same: “He personates all the Characters, and enters into the different Humours or Passions as they change from one to another, throughout the Opera.” He supplemented the main attraction with “celebrated Songs in the OPERA of Artaxerxes” and “a celebrated CANTATA, called Neptune & Amymone.” Readers of the Essex Gazette, prospective audiences for the performance, may very well have seen advertisements for The Beggar’s Opera in the Boston newspapers, given their circulation beyond the busy urban port and the proximity to Salem. By switching to another opera during his stay in Salem, the unnamed performer presented prospective audiences with something new and novel. To further entice local audiences to attend this new program, the performer added a nota bene advising that “His Stay will be short.” In other words, anyone interested in seeing the performance needed to purchase tickets as quickly as possible or else risk not having a chance to observe this dramatic spectacle before the itinerant performer moved along to another of the “great Towns.” Part of the marketing strategy depended on scarcity, but rather than scarcity of goods it emphasized scarcity of performances and limited opportunities to see the show. The performer challenged readers not to miss an event that would have their friends and neighbors talking long after it was over.

September 28

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

Sep 28 - 9:28:1769 Boston Chronicle
Boston Chronicle (September 28, 1769).

Will be READ, THE BEGGARS OPERA.”

The itinerant performer who staged a one-man rendition of The Beggar’s Opera in Providence on the evening of September 18, 1769, did not linger long in that city to offer encore performances. Instead, he quickly moved on to new audiences in Boston, according to advertisements that ran in the Boston Chronicle and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on September 28. Perhaps attendance at the Providence performance did not merit remaining for additional shows; alternately, the performer may have planned in advance to move from one city to the next fairly quickly, making arrangements for the venues ahead of his arrival. Whatever the explanation, he attempted to attract as large an audience as possible by inserting an advertisement in both newspapers published in Boston on Thursdays, a day before the performance “At a Large ROOM in BRATTLE STREET, formerly GREEN and WALKER’S Store.”

The performer was consistent in his messaging. Aside from the details about the location of performance and where to purchase tickets, the copy in the Boston newspapers replicated what ran in the Providence Gazette less than two weeks earlier (though the typography varied from newspaper to newspaper according to the discretion of the compositor). “Will be READ,” the notice proclaimed, “THE BEGGARS OPERA, By a Person who has READ & SUNG, IN MOST OF THE GREAT TOWNS IN AMERICA, All the SONGS will be SUNG.” The advertisement further described the performer’s delivery for the prospective audience: “He personates all the CHARACTERS, and enters into the different HUMOURS or PASSIONS, as they change from one to another throughout the OPERA.” When it came to the copy of the advertisements in the Boston newspapers, there was only one small variation. The version in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter advised, “No Person to be admitted without a Ticket.” The notice in the Providence Gazette included the same warning, a means of suggesting that the event would be so popular that readers risked missing out if they did not secure their tickets quickly. The version in the Boston Chronicle did not express the same urgency. Was the omission the fault of the performer or the compositor? The latter seems more likely considering how carefully the actor attended to marketing his performances.

These advertisements in the Providence Gazette and, later, newspapers published in Boston demonstrate some of the opportunities for colonists to participate in early American popular culture. They also suggest that even though some aspects of popular culture may have been local that others were shared throughout the colonies and beyond. The performer underscored that he had “READ & SUNG, IN MOST OF THE GREAT TOWNS IN AMERICA.” On his current tour, he presented a show already exceptionally popular in England, connecting colonists culturally to Britain even as they experienced political ruptures due to the Townshend Acts and other perceived abuses by Parliament. While the press offered one means of creating an imagined community among colonists, itinerant performers provided another way of cultivating a sense of community. This advertisement encouraged residents of Boston to participate in popular culture shared with colonists in other “GREAT TOWNS.”

September 16

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

Sep 16 - 9:16:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 16, 1769).

“Will be read, The BEGGAR’s OPERA.”

Many advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers encouraged colonists to participate in consumer culture, promoting an array of goods to acquire and services to obtain. Other advertisements invited colonists to participate in popular culture, promoting various kinds of spectacles and performances ranging from fireworks displays to viewing exotic animals when their proprietors arrived in town for limited time only. An advertisement in the September 16, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette announced a performance of The Beggar’s Opera “at Mr. Hacker’s Assembly-Room” two days later.

This was not, however, a full-scale production of the ballad opera. Instead, it featured a single performer, “a Person who has read and sung in most of the great Towns in America.” Even though the advertisement indicated that the opera “will be read” by an individual rather than performed by a larger cast, it also assured prospective viewers that “All the Songs will be sung.” The ballad opera lent itself well to such treatment. Originating in England in the early eighteenth-century, ballad opera intermixed spoken dialogue with music in the popular style. The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, included music drawn from broadsheet ballads, church hymns, and folk tunes familiar to general audiences. Viewers in Providence and “the great Towns in America” may have hummed or even sang along with the itinerant performer who read the dialogue for their entertainment.

To draw an audience to Hacker’s Assembly Room, the advertisement promised a spectacle. The lone performer “personates all the Characters, “including Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, “and enters into the different Humours or Passions, as they change from one to another, throughout the Opera.” The advertisement invited prospective viewers to witness this extravaganza. Those who saw it would join the ranks of audiences in other “great Towns in America,” enjoying an experience that they could discuss with others for days after the performance concluded. If this rendition of The Beggar’s Opera became the talk of the town, readers of the Providence Gazette could not afford to miss it. To guarantee themselves a spot in Hacker’s Assembly Hall, they had to purchase a ticket in advance. After all, the advertisement made clear “No Person to be admitted without a Ticket.”

June 4

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

Jun 4 - 6:4:1768 New-York Journal
Supplement to the New-York Journal (June 4, 1768).

The following Advertisement from the London Gazetteer … is inserted as a Curiosity.”

Colonial printers generated content for their newspapers by liberally reprinting items that previously appeared in other newspapers. Much of the news came from newspapers printed in other colonies, but some it also came directly from newspapers printed in London. In making their editorial decisions, printers sometimes chose items intended to inform or to educate, but other times selected items intended solely to entertain. The latter included anecdotes, poems, and even advertisements.

For instance, John Holt reprinted news from London in the Supplement to the New-York Journal distributed on June 4, 1768. He complemented the news from the Public Advertiser and Public Ledger with items intended to edify and to amuse, namely a poem “On JOHN WILKES, Esq; offering himself a Candidate for the County of Middlesex” and an “Advertisement from the London Gazetteer of the 31st of March last.” Holt explained that the advertisement “is inserted as a Curiosity” for his readers.

The advertisement offered colonists a glimpse of popular culture and entertainments available in England. It announced a spectacle that occurred every night (except Sundays) throughout the summer: “HORSEMANSHIP, performed on one, two, and three horses, by Mr. WOLTON, at St. George’s Spaw, at the Dog and Duck in St. George’s Fields Southwark.” The notice listed ten tricks performed by Wolton, including riding “two horses on full speed, standing upright with one foot on each saddle” and making “a flying leap over the bar with two horses, sitting on both saddles.” For added interest, Wolton beat a drum during some of his tricks and fired a pistol during others. To make the event even more spectacular, the proprietors supplied “Proper musick” to set the tone throughout the series of stunts.

Unless they planned a trip across the Atlantic, the readers of the New-York Journal did not have opportunities to witness Wolton’s show of horsemanship during the summer of 1768, but Holt suspected that the advertisement on its own provided some of level of entertainment. Its inclusion in the New-York Journal demonstrates how carefully the printer scoured other newspapers for content he imagined his readers would enjoy. Some colonists likely paid similar attention to the advertisements in their local newspapers, not because they were responsible for filling out the pages but instead because they sought entertainment, either by attending events like fireworks shows and musical performances or simply by reading advertisements that included curious or amusing content.

May 12

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

May 12 - 5:12:1768 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (May 12, 1768).

“FIRE WORKS, PERFORMED by two Italian Brothers from Turin.”

In addition to purchasing an array of goods and services, colonial consumers also spent their money on assorted entertainments. Newspaper advertisements testify to both the popular culture and leisure activities of the period. The May 12, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal, for instance, included several advertisements that encouraged readers to gather to socialize at a range of venues that provided entertainment. Some of these, such as an advertisement for a tavern, offered activities available to readers at practically any time, but others, especially an advertisement for a fireworks display, featured one-time-only spectacles.

John Taylor inserted an advertisement announcing that he had just opened “a Tavern and House of public Entertainment” known as “The GLASS-HOUSE” on the outskirts of the city. He invited both “Gentlemen and Ladies” to patronize his new enterprise, pledging to “regale them in the genteelest Manner, with the best Accommodations of every Kind.” In particular, he proclaimed, “Dinners will be provided at the shortest Notice.” Taylor attempted to distinguish his tavern from the many others operating in New York at the time by depicting it as an upscale alternative to the bawdy and boisterous atmosphere in other establishments.

Colonists could also enjoy theatrical productions in some, but not all, of the largest cities. Traveling troupes also entertained residents in towns and villages. In New York, the American Company regularly advertised plays staged “At the Theatre in John-Street.” The company placed two advertisements in the May 12 edition of the New-York Journal, one announcing the program for Friday, May 13 and the other Monday, May 16. On Friday evening viewers would be treated to “A TRAGEDY, call’d VENICE PRESERV’D, OR A PLOT DISCOVER’D” and “A FARCE (never perform’d in America) call’d LOVE A-LA-MODE.” To convince readers to purchase tickets, the company claimed that that the farce would only be performed only once during the season. To raise the stakes, the advertisement included a brief history its popularity: “The above Farce has been acted with more Success than any dramatic Piece in the Memory of Man, for since it was first presented to the Town, it has been presented to crowded Audiences One Hundred and Fifty Seven Nights, and is still constantly play’d at least once a Week, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.” The company implied that they anticipated crowds, but cautioned that “No Person on any Pretence whatsoever, can be admitted behind the Scenes.” Each element of the advertisement was designed to persuade potential patrons to attend the show or risk feeling left out of a major event. The American Company sold an experience that yielded a sense of community; not participating, however, resulted in a sense of exclusion and regret.

Two “Italian Brothers from Turin” offered other entertainments for the evening of Saturday, May 14: a fireworks show in three parts at Renelagh Gardens. The brothers described each portion of the show in detail, but their words merely suggested the spectacle that readers would experience if they attended the exhibition. To provide further encouragement, they listed their credentials, claiming that they were “(Engineers to the King of Sardinia) who have given very surprising Specimens of their Abilities before the Royal Family in Spain, and with great Applause before his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, and all the Nobility at Bath.” Even though New York was an imperial outpost on the far side of the Atlantic, the advertisement suggested that its residents could enjoy some of the best entertainments that had amused royals and nobles in England and other places in Europe, but only if they seized the opportunity and made their way to Renelagh Gardens for the exhibition on the only night it would be performed.

Each of these advertisements peddled popular culture to consumers, encouraging them to purchase experiences in addition to goods. The various entertainments cultivated a sense of community among those who witnessed them. Just as merchants and shopkeepers cautioned colonists not to be left behind when it came to the goods they sold, performers and others whose services emphasized leisure activities portrayed participating in the events they sponsored as a means of establishing bonds with other colonists through shared experiences.

April 28

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

Apr 28 - 4:28:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (April 28, 1767).

“The Proprietor’s stay in Charles-Town, will be about a Month.”

This advertisement presented residents of Charleston an opportunity to depart from their daily routines and view a spectacle: “JERUSALEM, Or a View of that famous City” as depicted in a painting that measured “seventeen Feet long, and nine Feet wide.” The advertisement aroused curiosity by describing in great detail the various landmarks visible in the scene, including “the Temple of SOLOMON, his Royal THRONE, the noted HOUSES, TOWERS and HILLS.” In addition, the painting also told the story of “the SUFFERINGS of our SAVIOUR, from the Garden of GETHSAMENA, to the CROSS on the Hill of GOLGOTHA.”

This attraction, “now to be seen at Mr. HOLIDAY’s,” was new to Charleston, though this form of entertainment was a familiar part of eighteenth-century popular culture. Proprietors of similar paintings of faraway places and historical scenes moved from place to place, charging admission (fifteen shillings in this case) to “the Curious” interested seeing something out of the ordinary. Other itinerants with magic lantern shows also amused colonists with scenes and stories, for a price. They were part of a larger community of entertainers (including acrobats, actors, musicians, wire dancers, and trick riders) that traveled from town to town, often generating interest and drawing audiences by advertising in local newspapers.

Like many other itinerant entertainers, the unnamed proprietor of this view of Jerusalem attempted to create a sense of urgency among those who might wish to see it. The advertisement stated that his “stay in Charles-Town, will be about a Month.” That may have accurate, but Peter Benes has demonstrated that this was often a marketing ploy. Many eighteenth-century entertainers regularly underscored that they planned to stay for a short time only, encouraging potential audiences not to miss out on the novelty of their performances. Taking out advertisements announcing an extended stay was another strategy for drawing viewers or audiences. Not only did doing so suggest popularity among the locals, it also gave readers a second chance to participate in the popular culture that had attracted their friends and neighbors. Such “limited time only” advertisements warned potential audiences not to miss out!