December 5

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

Providence Gazette (December 5, 1772).

“The PRINTING and POST-OFFICES are removed to Meeting-Street.”

John Carter’s printing office had a new location.  In early December 1772, the printer of the Providence Gazette moved from his location “in King-Street, opposite the Court-House” to a new location “in Meeting-Street, near the Court-House.”  The colophon in the November 28 edition listed the former address.  Carter updated the colophon in the December 5 edition.

That was not his only means for letting readers know that the printing office moved.  He also inserted a notice that stated, “The PRINTING and POST-OFFICES are removed to Meeting-Street, nearly opposite the Friends Meeting-House.”  To draw attention to it, Carter enclosed the notice within a border made of decorative type and gave it a prominent spot on the front page.  It was the first item in the first column, making it difficult for readers to miss it, even if they only skimmed other content in that issue.  That strategy was not new to Carter.  The printing office previously “removed to a new Building on the main Street” in October 1771.  At that time, Carter published an announcement enclosed within on a border as the first item on the first page of the October 12 edition.  He also revised the colophon to reflect the new location.

Other elements remained the same.  Carter continued to use a sign depicting “Shakespear’s Head” to identify the printing office.  Colonizers still encountered it as they traversed the streets of Providence, a familiar sight in the commercial landscape of the city.  The printer also continued to promote other services in the colophon, advising that “all Manner of Printing-Work is performed with Care and Expedition” at his office.  In particular, “Hand-Bills … done in a neat and correct Manner, at a very short Notice, and on reasonable Terms.”

Carter placed a subscription proposal for an edition of “ENGLISH LIBERTIES, OR The free-born Subject’s INHERITANCE” below the notice about the new location.  In the previous issue, that subscription proposal and an advertisement for the “NEW-ENGLAND ALMANACK” that Carter published and sold appeared on the front page.  As usual, all other advertisements ran on the final pages.  Carter exercised his prerogative as printer to give his own notices prime spots in the newspaper.

November 21

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

Providence Gazette (November 21, 1772).

“At the Sign of the Greyhound.”

Nathaniel Wheaton sold a “new Assortment of English and India GOODS, of almost every Kind,” as well as “West-India Goods” at his shop on Williams Street in Providence.  In an advertisement that ran in the Providence Gazette for several weeks in November 1772, he thanked his current customers and invited new ones to examine his merchandise, pledging that all of “their Favours will be gratefully acknowledged.”

To help readers find his shop, Wheaton noted that “the Sign of the Greyhound” marked his location.  A woodcut depicting a greyhound, sitting on its haunches and its town hanging out, adorned the advertisement.  The image may have replicated the shop sign.  Even if Wheaton had not been that precise, he still resorted to some sort of depiction of a greyhound to encourage consumers to associate that emblem with his shop.  Like other eighteenth-century newspaper advertisers who published images that correlated to their shop signs, Wheaton devised a marketing strategy that could be considered a precursor to branding his business.  The woodcut encouraged readers to associate the greyhound with Wheaton’s shop, especially when considered in combination with the sign displayed on Williams Street.

The image also directed attention to Wheaton’s advertisement.  Except for the image of a lion and a unicorn flanking a crown and shield in the masthead, the greyhound was the only image in the November 21 edition of the Providence Gazette.  Readers could not have missed it!  Wheaton incurred additional expense to achieve that.  He paid for the woodcut and he paid for the space it occupied.  Newspaper advertisers paid for the amount of space required to publish their notices, not by the number of words, so both larger fonts and images increased the costs of running advertisements.  Wheaton devoted as much space to the image of the greyhound as he did to advertising copy, doubling the price of his notice compared to what he would have paid if he published solely text.  He likely considered the additional expense a good investment to distinguish his advertisement from those of his competitors.  After all, it was not the first time he incorporated the image into his newspaper advertisements.

An imperfection in the copy of the November 21 edition available in the database of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers mars the image of the greyhound in Wheaton’s advertisement. This image shows the woodcut without flaws. (Providence Gazette, November 14, 1772).

November 5

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

New-York Journal (November 5, 1772).

At the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves.”

In the fall of 1772, George Webster joined the ranks of advertisers who attempted to draw more attention to their newspaper notices by adorning them with images related to their businesses.  Webster, a grocer, kept shop “at the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves” on Leary Street in New York.  A woodcut at the top of his advertisement depicted three sugar loaves, a tall one flanked by two shorter ones.  The border that surrounded the sugar loaves suggested that the image replicated the sign that marked Webster’s location.

Throughout the colonies, entrepreneurs who placed notices in the public prints sometimes incorporated such images, but the use of images in advertising was not a standard practice in the eighteenth century.  When Webster first used his woodcut in the October 22, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal, it was one of only three images in the entire issue.  As usual, the lion and unicorn appeared on either side of a crown and shield in the masthead on the front page.  Elsewhere in the issue, Nesbitt Deane’s image of a tricorn hat and a banner bearing his name once again took up as much space as the copy it introduced.  The remainder of the advertisements, dozens of them filling fourteen of the eighteen columns in the six-page edition, did not have images.  That made Webster’s new woodcut depicting the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves all the more noteworthy.  The following week, his image appeared once again, this time alongside two advertisements that featured stock images provided by the printer, a ship and a horse.  Neither of those familiar images had been crested for the exclusive use of any particular advertisers.  Webster, like Deane, made an additional investment in commissioning a woodcut so closely associated with some aspect of his own business.

By the time that the image appeared in Webster’s advertisement on November 5, regular readers would have recognized it, but that does not necessarily mean that the novelty had dissipated.  The woodcut continued to distinguish the grocer’s notice from the dozens of others in that issue.  Its mere presence demanded attention on a page that lacked other images in a newspaper with only four other images distributed across all six pages.  It likely also helped to encourage brand recognition as both image and text in Webster’s newspaper advertisement corresponded to the sign that colonizers glimpsed when they visited or passed his shop.

June 10

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

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (June 8, 1772).

“The Post of Mr. SIMNETT’s Dial is white, to distinguish it.”

John Simnet, a watchmaker, ran several advertisements in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal in the spring of 1772.  In several of them, he pursued a feud with another watchmaker, James Yeoman, but he did not make any new insinuations about his competitor in a notice that appeared in the Gazette on June 8.  In the most aggressive portion of the advertisement, Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.”  Such commentary did not apply exclusively to Yeoman or any other rival.  Simnet had a long history of accusing most watchmakers of creating work for themselves by making repairs intended to last for only a short time.

Simnet devoted most of this advertisement to promoting various aspects of his own business rather than denigrating Yeoman or other watchmakers.  He boasted about his credentials, noting that “during the Term of Apprenticeship” he served as “Finisher to Mr. Webster, Exchange Alley, London.”  He also underscored his availability to greet customers “from Five in the Morning till Six in the Evening.”  In addition, he listed prices for several common services, such as “Joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings” and a “new Main Spring either Six or Eight Shillings,” so prospective customers could assess the bargains for themselves.  To guide them in doing so, Simnet asserted that he set rates “at HALF the Price charg’d by any other” and explained that his customers did not have to worry about “future Expence,” those annual repairs.

The watchmaker did insert one clarification that did not previously appear in other variations of his advertisement that spring.  Apparently, another watchmaker set up shop in the vicinity, prompting Simnet to give more explicit directions to his own location.  “As there is now another of the Trade adjoining,” he explained, “please with Care to observe the Place; the Post of Mr. SIMNETT’s Dial is white, to distinguish it, and his Shop is low, aside the Coffee-House Bridge, but not the Corner.”  In a previous advertisement, he described the device that marked his shop as “the Black Dial, with a White Post.”  A competitor may have marked his own shop with a similar device, causing Simnet to focus on the color of the post.  Readers familiar with the usual tone in Simnet’s advertisements may have wondered how much time would elapse before he published more colorful commentary about “another of the Trade” with a shop so close to his own.

May 3

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

Providence Gazette (May 2, 1772).

“At the Sign of the GREYHOUND.”

In the spring of 1772, Nathaniel Wheaton advertised a “fine Assortment of Spring and Summer GOODS” that he recently imported to Providence “by the last Vessels from England.”  He pledged to sell these items “cheaper than he has yet done,” promising bargains for prospective customers.  To attract attention to his appeals to consumer choice, that “fine assortment,” and low prices, those low prices, he adorned his advertisement in the Providence Gazette with an image of a dog.  He gave his location as “the Sign of the GREYHOUND, between the Baptist Meeting-House and the Church,” suggesting that the woodcut was intended to depict a greyhound.  Readers may not have recognized the breed at a glance.

Despite the image’s shortcomings, it enhanced Wheaton’s marketing efforts.  It was the only woodcut incorporated into an advertisement in the May 2, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette.  Elsewhere in the issue, only the masthead featured an image.  That almost certainly made readers take note of Wheaton’s advertisement, especially considering that most others consisted of dense paragraphs of text.  In addition, the image contributed to creating a brand for Wheaton, giving his business a visual identity that colonizers encountered in more than one place.  They saw his sign when they traversed the streets of Providence and they glimpsed his advertisements in the Providence Gazette.  Wheaton may have also distributed broadsides, handbills, trade cards, or billheads that also bore an image purported to be a greyhound.

Other advertisers mentioned their shop signs.  Thurber and Cahoon, for instance, announced that they did business at “the Sign of the BUNCH of GRAPES, in CONSTITUTION-STREET.”  Tillinghast and Holroyd ran a store “at the Sign of the ELEPHANT.”  Their advertisements hint at the rich visual culture associated with commerce in urban ports in eighteenth-century America.  For his part, Wheaton expanded that visual culture into the most common media of the era, newspapers, increasing the chances that prospective customers would peruse the copy of his advertisement.  Even if they did not, he gained greater visibility for his shop and name recognition than competitors who did not insert images with into their notices.

April 8

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 6, 1772).

“He is to be spoke with at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers.”

Newspaper notices accounted for the vast majority of advertising in eighteenth-century America, but not all advertisers resorted to the public prints.  Some posted broadsides or distributed handbills, trade cards, and billheads.  Some artisans affixed labels to furniture produced in their shops.  Others did not use printed media at all.  Instead, they relied on shop signs to mark their locations and communicate to prospective customers what kinds of goods and services they provided.

Far fewer shop signs survive than newspaper advertisements, but various sources suggest that colonizers encountered a rich visual landscape of shop signs as they traversed the streets in towns from New England to Georgia.  The April 6, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury testifies to some of the shop signs in the city during the era of the American Revolution.  In the colophon, incorporated into the masthead, Hugh Gaine declared that he printed the newspaper “at the Bible and Crown, in HANOVER-SQUARE.”  Elsewhere in the newspaper, John Sheiuble, an “ORGAN BUILDER, from PHILADELPHIA,” informed readers that they could speak with him “at Mr. Samuel Prince’s, Cabinet-maker, at the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, in New-York.”  Prince’s shop sign made it into the public prints because a fellow artisan used it as a point of reference in his advertisement.  Whether or not they read the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, many colonizers likely associated the Sign of the Chest of Drawers with Prince and the furniture produced in his shop.  Sheiuble believed that the device was so widely recognized in the city that he did not need to mention the name of the street or any nearby landmarks to direct readers to Prince’s shop.

Sheiuble’s advertisement did not include a depiction of the Sign of the Chest of Drawers.  Merely mentioning the sign likely evoked an image in the minds of those who had seen it, but left others to rely on their imaginations.  On occasion, advertisers did adorn their newspaper notices (or trade cards and billheads) with images that replicated their shop signs.  For the most part, however, short descriptions, like the Sign of the Chest of Drawers, account for how much we know about the images colonizers glimpsed in the windows or hanging above the doors of eighteenth-century shops.

October 12

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

Providence Gazette (October 12, 1771).

“The PRINTING-OFFICE is removed to a new Building.”

In the fall of 1771, John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, moved to a new location.  When he did so, he exercised his prerogative as printer to give his announcement a privileged page in the newspaper he published.  The first item in the first column on the first page of the October 12 edition proclaimed, “The PRINTING-OFFICE is removed to a new Building on the main Street, fronting the COURT-HOUSE.”  In case that was not enough to draw attention, Carter also resorted to ornamental type.  Three asterisks preceded the copy of his notice.  A decorative border enclosed the entire announcement, distinguishing it from other advertisements in the same issue.

Carter also updated the colophon that ran at the bottom of the final page each week, revising the second line to read “in King-Street, Opposite the Court-House” rather than “in King-Street, near the Court-House.”  The remainder of the colophon remained the same, including the invocation of “Shakespear’s Head” as the sign that marked the building where Carter operated the printing office.  When Carter moved to a new location, a sign that assisted residents and visitors in navigating the streets of Providence also moved.  The printer was not the only advertiser who directed prospective customers to the new location for that landmark.  Halsey and Corlis instructed readers that they had “removed their Shop” where they sold imported goods “on the West Side of the Great Bridge, to a new Store directly opposite the Court-House, at the Sign of Shakespear’s Head.”  The sign that marked Carter’s printing office for years moved with him.  When it did, it became a device that helped identify other businesses that opened in a new building.

The advertisements in the Providence Gazette helped readers re-imagine the streets of the town, aiding them in finding the businesses they wished to visit.  A notice on the front page, a slight revision to the colophon, and an advertisement placed by shopkeepers located in the same building all worked together in reorienting the public to the new location of “Shakespear’s Head … opposite the Court-House.”

December 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (December 13, 1770).

“At the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.”

Francis Shaw, Jr., stocked a “LARGE and neat Assortment of cream and other coloured WARE, of the newest fashion,” at his shop in Boston.  In an advertisement in the December 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Spy, he gave his locations as “the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.”  American cities did not use standardized street numbers to organize urban spaces until the late 1780s and early 1790s.  Before then, residents relied on a variety of landmarks and other descriptions to give directions.  They often used them in combination, as Shaw did.  He gave his street, but he also indicated the previous occupant of his store to guide prospective customers familiar with Gould’s business on Back Street.  He also used a shop sign for reference, though the Sign of the Crown and Scepter did not mark his own location.  Instead, he mentioned it as a landmark, describing his location “opposite” or across the street from the sign.

Other advertisers deployed similar strategies in describing their locations.  On the same day that Shaw placed his advertisement, John Langdon placed a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury.  In it, he invited prospective customers to “his Store lately Improv’d by Messr’s Cox & Berry nearly opposite the Post-Office.”  Peter Roberts sold medicines and medical equipment at his shop “opposite the West-Door of the Town-House.”  John Crosby, a frequent advertiser who peddled citrus fruits and other grocery items, gave his location as “the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons at the South-End.”  Samuel Abbot declared that his store was located “on Greene’s Wharff, near the East of the Market.”  Collectively, these advertisements and others suggest some of the methods colonists used to make sense of the cityscape and navigate the streets of Boston.  These descriptions supplement eighteenth-century maps, engravings, paintings, drawings, and other visual images as well as travel narratives and letters that depicted the busy port.  They also reveal important relationships, such as previous occupants and nearby landmarks, that mattered to both advertisers and readers of early American newspapers.  Commercial notices provided their own portraits of cities like Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.

November 27

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

Essex Gazette (November 27, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar.”

In the fall of 1770, Philip Godfrid Kast, an apothecary, placed an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to inform potential customers that he carried “a general Assortment of Medicines” at his shop “At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar” in Salem, Massachusetts.  Purveyors of goods and services frequently included shop signs in their newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century, usually naming the signs that marked their own location but sometimes providing directions in relation to nearby signs.  On occasion, they included woodcuts that depicted shop signs, but few went to the added expense.  Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements provide an extensive catalog of shop signs that colonists encountered as they traversed city streets in early America, yet few of those signs survive today.

Kast did not incorporate an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar into his newspaper advertisements in the fall of 1770, but four years later he distributed a trade card with a striking image of an ornate column supporting a sign that depicted a lion working a mortar and pestle.  Even if the signpost was exaggerated, the image of the sign itself likely replicated the one that marked Kast’s shop.  Nathaniel Hurd’s copperplate engraving for the trade card captured more detail than would have been possible in a woodcut for a newspaper advertisement.  Absent the actual sign, the engraved image on Kast’s trade card provided the next best possible option in terms of preserving the Sign of the Lion and Mortar given the technologies available in the late eighteenth century.  Trade cards, however, were much more ephemeral than newspapers and the advertisements they contained.  That an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar survives today is due to a combination of luck, foresight (or accident) on the part of Kast or an eighteenth-century consumer who did not discard the trade card, and the efforts of generations of collectors, librarians, catalogers, conservators, and other public historians.  Compared to woodcuts depicting shop signs in newspaper advertisements, trade cards like those distributed by Kast even more accurately captured the elaborate details.  Those shop signs contributed to a rich visual landscape of marketing in early America.

Philip Godfrid Kast’s Trade Card, Engraved by Nathaniel Hurd, Boston, 1774 (American Antiquarian Society).

September 13

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 13, 1770).

“At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.”

In an advertisement in the September 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Jonathan Williams informed readers that he sold “Choice Pesada, Malaga, Madeira, Tenerife or Vidonia, and other WINES.”  He also stocked “Good Barbadoes RUM” and “good empty Casks for Cyder.”  To aid prospective customers in finding his storehouse, Williams listed his location as “At the Black Boy and Butt in Cornhill.”  A sign depicting a Black child and a barrel adorned his place of business.

Black people, many of them enslaved, were present in Boston during the era of the American Revolution.  Living and working in the bustling port city, Black people were physically present.  Elsewhere in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, another advertisement offered a “likely Negro Woman, about 20 Years old” for sale.  The enslaver remained anonymous, as was often the case, instead directing interested parties to “Enquire at [Richard] Draper’s Printing Office.”  Another advertisement described a “NEGRO MAN, calls himself Jeffry,” who had been “Taken up” on suspicion of having escaped from his enslaver.  In addition to living and working in Boston, Black people also endeavored to liberate themselves, though they had been doing that long before the era of the American Revolution.

As Williams’s sign testifies, Black people were also present in the iconography on display in Boston, just as they were in other port cities In New England and other regions.  (See a short and unsurely incomplete list below.)  The “Black Boy and Butt” represented Williams’s commercial interests.  He transformed the Black body into a logo for his business, a further exploitation of the enslaved people responsible for producing many of the commodities he marketed.  The “Good Barbadoes RUM” he promoted came from a colony notorious for both the size of its enslaved population and the harsh conditions under which they involuntarily labored to produce sugarcane desired for sweetening tea and necessary for distilling rum.  Williams may not have been an enslaver himself, but his business depended on enslaved people twice over, first through production and then through the visual representation that distinguished his storehouse from other buildings on Cornhill Street.  Williams’s customers encountered a visible reminder that their consumption habits were enmeshed in networks of trade that integrated slavery as a vital component every time they visited his storehouse and saw the “Black Boy and Butt.”

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Sign of the Black Boy, Providence Gazette, April 15, 1769
Sign of the Black Boy and Butt, Providence Gazette, December 10, 1768
Sign of the Black Boy, Connecticut Courant, March 31, 1766