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 1772, 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.”

**********

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

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 1, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”

On the first day of September in 1770, Benjamin Bowen and Benjamin Stelle advertised “MEDICINES, A full and general Assortment, Chymical and Galenical,” in the Providence Gazette.  They informed prospective customers that they could purchase these medicines “at the well-known Apothecary’s Shop just below the Church, at the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”  In case that shop was not as familiar to readers as Bowen and Stelle suggested it might be, they named the sign that adorned it.  That landmark identified the exact location to acquire “the best of MEDICINES” and “CHOCOLATE, by the Pound, Box, or Hundred Weight.”

Newspaper advertisements placed by entrepreneurs like Bowen and Stelle testify to the visual landscape that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of towns and cities in eighteenth-century America.  In addition to the “Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar,” that same issue of the Providence Gazette included directions to John Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeares Head.”  Not all advertisers always included their shop signs in their notices.  Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement for gun powder and shot that did not make reference to the “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”  On other occasions, however, they were just as likely to include the sign without their name, so familiar had it become in Providence.

Very few eighteenth-century shop signs survived into the twenty-first century.  Evidence that the “Unicorn and Mortar,” “Shakespeares Head,” and the “Golden Eagle” once marked places of commercial activity and aided colonists in navigating the streets of Providence and other places comes from newspaper advertisements and other documents from the period.  Any catalog of such signs draws heavily from advertisements since colonists so often referenced them in their notices.  Even those who did not have shop signs of their own listed their locations in relation to nearby signs, suggesting the extent that shop signs helped colonists make sense of their surroundings and navigate the streets of towns and cities.

April 19

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

Apr 19 - 4:19:1770 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (April 19, 1770).

“TO BE SOLD … the Sign, Counters, Shelves and Drawers, and all the Shop Utensils.”

For a while, Mrs. Willett kept the shop formerly operated by her deceased husband, Thomas Charles, open.  An advertisement that listed an extensive assortment of merchandise ran in the February 22, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal.  It also included a note that “The business is carried on as usual,” implicitly acknowledging the death of Willett’s husband.  Two months later, however, Willett closed down the entire enterprise and prepared to sail for Europe.  She placed another advertisement in the New-York Journal in April, that one calling on “All Persons who have any Demands on the said Thomas C. Willett” to present them for payment and “those few Customers” who had not yet settled accounts to do so before she departed.  She also warned that anyone who left “Rings, Buttons, Linen,” or other goods as collateral would forfeit them if they did not pay their debts.

In addition to settling accounts, Willett also announced an eighteenth-century version of a going out of business sale.  She aimed to get rid of everything.  In addition to selling her personal belongings, she also sold the remaining inventory of the shop “at first COST.”  Consumers might have found bargains, but Willett likely hoped to attract a buyer with an entrepreneurial spirit who also wished to acquire “the Sign, Counters, Shelves and Drawers, and all the Shop Utensils” necessary to set up business.  In the absence of many contemporary visual images of the interiors of shops in eighteenth-century America, Willett’s list conjures scenes of consumption.

It also reveals that visual images associated with particular merchants and shopkeepers could be transferred from one to another.  Willett did not invoke the name of the shop sign in either advertisement she placed in the New-York Journal, but she did consider it important enough to include (and list first) among the various equipment associated with the business.  In the April 19 edition, her advertisement appeared on the same page as one of Gerardus Duyckinck’s notices featuring an elaborate woodcut that incorporated a depiction of his “Sign of the Looking Glass & Druggist Pot.”  Over the course of several years, the Looking Glass and Druggist Pot most certainly became associated with Duyckinck’s business among residents of New York.  It served as a logo of sorts that made for easy identification of his business.  Even without a similar constant reiteration in the public prints, the sign marking the Willett shop most likely became similarly recognizable to colonists who traversed the streets of the busy port.  Willett did not name the sign associated with her shop, but she considered it a valuable enough marketing tool to include among the fixtures available for purchase.  The image would no longer be affiliated with the Willett family; instead, it would come to represent another enterprise in New York’s marketplace.

January 7

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

Jan 7 1770 - 1:4:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (January 4, 1770).

“At the sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister.”

In late 1769 or early 1770, Robert Levers opened a shop on Second Street in Philadelphia. There he sold “a large and general assortment of GROCERY GOODS,” many of which he listed in an advertisement in the January 4, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. His inventory included “raisins and currants, figs, pepper and ginger, alspice, nutmegs, cloves, mace, cinnamon, [and] rice.” He also stocked Portuguese wines, French brandy, rum distilled in the colonies, and other spirits.

Yet those were not the items that received top billing Levers’s advertisement. His list commenced with “HYSON green and bohea teas, loaf and lump sugar, muscovado sugars, by the barrel or pound, [and] coffee and chocolate.” Levers likely chose to place those items first because they were so popular with consumers, but they also happened to correspond to the wares depicted in his shop sign. Before making his pitch – an appeal to consumer choice, an appeal to price, a catalog of goods to demonstrate consumer choice, a statement of appreciation to former customers, an appeal to quality, and another appeal to price – Levers first informed readers that he was located at “the sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister.” That sign conjured an evocative image of some of the most popular commodities in Philadelphia and throughout the colonies.

Like most signs that marked eighteenth-century shops, Levers’s sign no longer exists except in newspaper advertisements. Those advertisements constitute a partial catalog of the iconography deployed to mark retail shops, taverns, and artisans’ workshops. They also hint at the visual landscape colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of cities and towns. The “sign of the Sugar-loaf, Pound of Chocolate, and Tea Cannister” helped Levers direct customers to his shop in an era before standardized street numbers. It suggested to passersby what kind of merchandise they could expect to find within the shop. It also aided colonists in navigating the streets of the bustling port city. One need not have any business with Levers to use his shop sign as a landmark in giving or following directions.

Levers noted that he had “lately opened shop.” His newspaper advertisement helped achieve visibility for his new enterprise, but so did his shop sign. He did not limit his marketing efforts to the public prints. Instead, his sign served as a visual invitation for colonists to visit and remember his shop.