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