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