November 17

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

Pennsylvania Journal (November 17, 1773).

“Mr. DOUGLASS’S concern for the peace of the Theatre prevented him from … confuting those falshoods … propagated against him.”

Something happened at the theater in Southwark on the outskirts of Philadelphia in November 1773, something that one of the actors, John Henry, believed he should address in the public prints.  Among the various advertisements in the November 17 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, Henry inserted “A CARD” in which he “most respectfully assures the Town, that he has too great a deference for their opinion to wish to do any thing contrary to it.”  He did not elaborate on what had happened, nor did any of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time mention any controversy among the local news they printed that week, but conversation and gossip likely made any such coverage unnecessary.  If readers did not already know what happened, they could easily enough ask friends and acquaintances to learn more.

Henry made some references in his “CARD” that likely would have piqued the curiosity of readers and prompted some of them to make inquiries.  For instance, he indicated that a play had been canceled, but, if it had been performed as scheduled, he would have “addressed the Audience and submitted himself entirely to their judgment.”  However, “Mr. DOUGLASS’S concern for the peace of the Theatre prevented him from having an opportunity of evinceing that respect he has for the Public, and of confuting those falshoods that, he understands, have been propagated against him.”  Scandal!  What kinds of rumors circulated about Henry?  Henry’s “CARD” likely whetted the appetites of some readers to find out more about what kind of trouble the actor’s troubles.

An advertisement in the previous issue of the Pennsylvania Journal announced that the American Company would perform “A COMEDY called THE CLANDESTINE MARRIAGE,” first performed at Drury Lane in London in 1766, at the “Theatre in Southwark” for “POSITIVELY THE LAST WEEK.”  Douglass, the manager of the company, played the role of Sir John Melvile, while Henry played Lovewell.  Apparently, none of the rumors about Henry had circulated before the advertisement ran on November 10, at least not so widely to merit canceling any performances.  Whatever had conspired, Henry wanted a chance to address “those falshoods,” though the actor seemingly preferred to present his defense to an audience rather than in print.  He likely reasoned that he could more readily sway the sympathies of an audience who witnessed how he comported himself than readers who could not hear the tone of his voice or observe his demeanor.  In addition, he likely did not wish to commit some allegations to print.

That did not prevent him from making an earnest plea in his “CARD.”  Henry declared that had he been permitted to make an address that “his intention was to throw himself on the protection of an American Audience,—who, he was conscious, would not condemn him unheard.”  He believed this from experience, having been “Brought up to his profession on the American Stage, and having exerted his poor endeavours to please, for these seven years past.”  The Irish-born actor had previously performed in Dublin and London before migrating to Jamaica and, eventually, the mainland colonies.  He appeared in productions at the John Street Theatre in New York in 1767, later moving to the theater in Southwark.  In his “CARD,” he professed that American audiences “have hitherto honoured him with more marks of their indulgence than his small share of merit deserves.”  Given a chance, the actor was confident that “an American Audience, … from their known generosity, candour, and impartiality,” would have heard his story and accepted the explanation he gave.  Henry concluded by declaring that “it shall be his constant—his grateful study to deserve” the trust and approval of that audience.

Henry’s “CARD” did not tell the whole story, though it revealed more than appeared elsewhere in any of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time.  The truncated narrative delivered local news in its own way, while also prompting readers to seek out information from other sources to learn more about whatever scandal embroiled one of the actors at the Southwark Theatre.

October 30

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

South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 30, 1770).

“Said Report is FALSE.”

In late October 1770, Richard Clark, a watch- and clockmaker, took to the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to address a rumor circulating in Charleston.  “[I]t hath been reported by some MALICIOUS PERSONS,” Clark lamented, “That I was going to leave the Province.”  That was not the case at all.  “I therefore acquaint the PUBLIC,” he continued, “that said report is FALSE, as I never had such an Intention.”

Why would others have traded in such gossip?  Was it an attempt by a competitor to undermine Clark’s business by pulling away customers who thought he was leaving the colony?  Did disgruntled acquaintances seek to cause him financial difficulty if Clark’s associates demanded that he pay his debts in advance of his departure?  Did something else occur?  Clark did not speculate beyond ascribing the false reports to “MALICIOUS PERSONS” responsible for the mischief, though that does not mean that he did not have suspicious that he left unspoken.

The watchmaker took the opportunity to promote his business at the same time he corrected the record.  He “return[ed] Thanks to all those who have been pleased to favour me with their Custom,” establishing that he had a clientele who availed themselves of his services.  He invited them and others to visit his shop on King Street, where he cleaned and repaired watches and clocks “in the neatest Manner, and greatest Dispatch.”  He promised quality and efficiency to his customers, two standard appeals in newspaper advertisements placed by artisans.

Clark competed for customers in a crowded marketplace, one sometimes shaped in part by innuendo and rumor that appeared in print or passed from person to person by word of mouth.  For more than a year and a half, clock- and watchmakers John Simnet and Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith engaged in vicious sparring matches in their advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette.  Even if it was not a competitor who spread the false reports of Clark’s supposed plans to leave the colony, the watchmaker had to deal with the consequences of gossip that could damage his livelihood.  He turned to the public prints to address the calumnious reports and provide reassurances that he remained in business.

October 12

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

Oct 12 - 10:12:1769 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 12 1769).

“We have suffered much by the generous Sacrifice of the Mercantile Interest to the public Freedom and Happiness.”

This “ADVERTISEMENT” by John Barrett and Sons most likely was not a paid notice but rather a letter to the editor of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. Either the Barretts or the printer used the word “advertisement” to mean a notification or a written statement calling attention to something, common usage in the eighteenth-century but chiefly historical today. Unlike most paid notices that ran for multiple weeks, this “ADVERTISEMENT” appeared only once, suggesting that the printer did indeed insert it as an article of interest for readers. Still, this “ADVERTISEMENT” appeared immediately above a paid notice for consumer goods. It testifies to some of the discourse that animated the appeals made in paid notices that promoted consumer goods and services.

Barrett and Sons sought to address rumors that dogged their business in the midst of the nonimportation agreement. Others had “maliciously reported” that they engaged in price gouging, charging much more than they did “before the general Non-Importation” to take advantage of the perceived scarcity of goods. The Barretts assured readers, both their customers and the general public, that they had “invariably, on the same Terms” sold their wares at the same prices “as we have done for three Years last past.” Just as significantly, they had accepted the ramifications to their business for doing so, indicating that they had “suffered much by the generous Sacrifice of the Mercantile Interest to the public Freedom and Happiness.” They pledged to continue “selling at the same low Rates” as to support the cause. The prospects for their business and their personal interests mattered less than virtuously participating in the nonimportation agreement for the benefit of all colonists.

That being the case, Barrett and Sons addressed a second rumor that accused them of ordering surplus stock ahead of the nonimportation agreement going into effect in order to have plenty of merchandise to continue selling to colonial consumers. The Barretts argued that was exactly the opposite of what happened: the “Rumour is as groundless as it is injurious.” Instead, in June 1768, two months before the merchants of Boston signed the nonimportation agreement, Barrett and Sons cancelled their orders for fall goods. They feared that the merchants would not reach agreement on nonimportation and, if that happened, the general public would then assume adopt nonconsumption as an alternative strategy, refusing to purchase imported goods. The Barretts expected that a broad nonconsumption movement by colonists would sway merchants, convincing them to overcome their hesitation about nonimportation. That had not become necessary, but Barrett and Sons informed the public (and prospective customers) that they envisioned the possibility of such a plan going into effect.

The politics of commerce and consumption tinged every word in this “ADVERTISEMENT” by Barrett and Sons. They defended their reputation to the general public, presenting a narrative of their own actions in relation to nonimportation and nonconsumption intended to enhance, rather than merely rehabilitate, their standing in the community. They sought to convince their fellow colonists that they were savvy but not unscrupulous traders who simultaneously tended their own business interests and promoted the public good … and when the two came into conflict, they opted for the public good over their own enterprises. Civic virtue imbued the decisions they made about their business.

September 15

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

Sep 15 - 9:15:1769 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (September 15, 1769).

Some evil minded Person or Persons have wickedly and falsely spread a Report, that I put Soap Suds and Pot-Ash in my Bread.”

As summer turned to fall in 1769, Christopher Smieller took to the pages of New-London Gazette to defend his reputation and mitigate damage already done to his business. The baker had become aware of a vicious rumor about his bread. In a lengthy nota bene at the conclusion of even lengthier advertisement, he expressed his outrage that “some evil minded Person or Persons have wickedly and falsely spread a Report, that I put Soap Suds and Pot-Ash in my Bread.” Smellier could not let this slander pass unremarked. Instead, he offered “a Reward of Two Dollars to any Person who will inform me of such Defamers that they may be prosecuted according to law.” In order to rehabilitate his standing in the community, he also made provision for witnesses to observe him as he went about his business: “I will permit any two or three honest Men to stay with me 24 Hours, who may inspect every Article put into my Bread.”

Combatting gossip circulating about unsavory additions to his bread may have prompted Smieller to insert other aspects of his lengthy advertisement. It opened like many other advertisements for consumer goods, listing his wares. Smieller also advanced an appeal to price, stating that he sold loaf and ship bread, gingerbread, cakes, and pies “as cheap as in any of the neighbouring Governments.” In other words, his prices in New London were as good as prospective customers could find in Massachusetts, New York, or Rhode Island. He doubled down on this assertion later in the advertisement, proclaiming the he baked ship bread “as good and as cheap as in any Part of America.”

Smieller tied the prices he charged for bread to the prevailing prices for flour. He made allusion to “sundry Persons who call themselves Bakers” who had been overcharging the residents of New London and making it unaffordable for them to buy bread. To demonstrate that he charged fair prices, Smieller specified how much a loaf of bread weighed and the corresponding price at the current price for flour. He explained that he would adjust the price per loaf as his own costs for flour fluctuated, but that he would hold his profit consistent. He hoped current and prospective customers would patronize his business out of appreciation for his commitment to keeping prices low by earning “so very small” profits on his bread. Smieller might not otherwise have outlined the expenditures and profits for his business, but defending himself against the rumor that he put soap and potash in his bread may have motivated him to devise other methods of convincing the people of New London to purchase from him.