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

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.

September 7

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

Sep 7 - 9:7:1769 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (September 7, 1769).

At the Sign of the Boot and Shoe.”

In an advertisement that ran in the September 7, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, boot- and shoemaker James Kedmon reported that he had “lately arrived from Europe” and opened a shop on Water Street in Philadelphia. The newcomer certainly knew how to make his presence known in the public prints. His advertisement featured a woodcut depicting a boot flanked by two shoes. The woodcut occupied approximately the same amount of space as the copy for Kedmon’s advertisement, representing a significant expense. In addition, the shoemaker had to commission the woodcut in the first place, but he apparently anticipated a return on his investment.

After all, this visual image distinguished his advertisement from all of the others that ran on the same page. None of them included visual images. Only two other images appeared elsewhere in the same issue. An advertisement on another page included a smaller woodcut that depicted a ship at sea, a stock image that would have belonged to the printers rather than being created for the exclusive use of an advertiser. Eighteenth-century readers regularly encountered multiple variations of such images of ships in a single issue of a newspaper. The masthead also included a familiar image inspired by William Penn’s coat of arms; it appeared in every issue. The September 7 edition, like every other, consisted almost entirely of text. As a result, readers’ eyes would have been drawn to the woodcut of the boot and shoes, a unique feature, when perusing the Pennsylvania Gazette.

A border enclosed that boot and shoes, transforming the woodcut into a depiction of a shop sign rather than just the merchandise Kedmon offered for sale. The shoemaker informed prospective customers that they could find him “at the Sign of the Boot and Shoe.” The woodcut may have faithfully replicated the sign that marked Kedmon’s shop; even if it did not, it suggests the type of images colonists would have seen as they traversed the streets of Philadelphia and other cities and towns. The consistent use of text and images invoking “the Sign of the Boot and Shoe” represented an eighteenth-century attempt at branding. Kedmon sought to make his presence in a new location known not only through newspaper advertisements but also through careful coordination with the images he displayed at his ship on Water Street. His newspaper advertisement with a striking woodcut was part of a larger campaign to attract customers.

June 6

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

Jun 6 - 6:6:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (June 6, 1769).

Goldsmith and Jeweller, AT the Sign of the Gold Cup.”

Like many other eighteenth-century advertisers, John Andrew noted the proximity of a landmark to his shop when directing prospective customers to his location. In an advertisement that ran in the Essex Gazette on June 6, 1769, Andrew informed readers that they could find his shop “near the Long-Wharf-Lane” in Salem. Yet he did not rely solely on landmarks and street names to identify his business. Andrew also declared that customers could seek him out at “the Sign of the Gold Cup.” A goldsmith and jeweler, Andrew selected a device that resonated with his occupation to mark his location.

Andrew’s advertisement testifies to an element of the visual landscape that residents and visitors alike encountered in Salem and other towns on the eve of the American Revolution. Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others posted signs to identify where they did business. Often these signs featured images that became associated with both entrepreneurs and locations. In Andrew’s case, the “Sign of the Gold Cup” was appropriate for an artisan who “makes all Sorts of Goldsmith’s and Jewellery Ware,” yet others who followed different occupations most likely also made reference to that sign when giving directions. Advertisements from newspapers published in several cities reveal that even when they did not invest in signs themselves, colonists made use of signs posted by others to give directions. In addition to marking the locations of particular businesses, shop signs served as landmarks for navigating the vicinity. Just as Andrew stated that his shop was near Long Wharf Lane, advertisers sometimes invoked nearby signs erected by others as features that would aid prospective customers in finding their shops. Given the frequency that this occurred in newspaper advertisements, colonists likely adopted such strategies in conversation just as regularly. Useful not only for commerce, shop signs aided everyday navigation of the lanes, streets, and alleys in colonial cities and towns.

January 14

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

Providence Gazette (January 14, 1769).

“To be Sold at the Golden Eagle.”

In an era before standardized street numbers, advertisers used a variety of other means to advise prospective customers where to find their shops and stores. Consider the directions offered in advertisements in the January 14, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. Samuel Chace listed his location as “just below the Great Bridge.” Similarly, Samuel Black specified that his store was “on the West Side of the Great Bridge, and near the Long Wharff.” Other advertisers included even more elaborate instructions. Darius Sessions reported that his shop was “on the main Street, between the Court-House and Church, and directly opposite the large Button-Wood Tree.” Patrick Mackey announced that “he has opened a Skinner’s Shop near the Hay-Ward, on the East Side of the Great Bridge, between Mr. Godfry’s and the Sign of the Bull.” These advertisers expected prospective customers would navigate the city via a combination of street names, landmarks, and shop signs.

In contrast, another advertisement, one that did not name the merchant or shopkeeper who inserted it in the Providence Gazette, simply proclaimed, “a general Assortment of ENGLISH and HARD WARE GOODS, to be Sold at the Golden Eagle.” The store operated by Joseph Russell and William Russell was so renowned that its location did not require elaboration. The Russells considered it so well known that they did not need to include their names in the advertisement. Instead, their shop sign served as the sole representation of their business in the public prints. “Golden Eagle” even appeared in larger font, making it the central focus of advertisement. In other advertisements, the names “Samuel Chace,” “Samuel Black,” and “Darius Sessions” drew attention as headlines in font the same size as “Golden Eagle.” This was not the first time that the Russells had excluded their names in favor of having their shop sign stand in for them. A brief advertisement published two months earlier informed readers about “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” That they repeatedly deployed this strategy suggests their confidence that their shop sign was known and recognized, both by readers who perused the Providence Gazette and by prospective customers who traversed the streets of Providence.

November 19

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

Nov 19 - 11:19:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 19, 1768).

“To be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.”

An advertisement that ran several times in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1768 informed readers quite simply of “TAR, PITCH and TURPENTINE, to be Sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” The notice did not provide additional information about the location of the shop or the proprietor. In another advertisement inserted simultaneously, Joseph Russell and William Russell hawked a variety of hardware goods they carried “at their Store and Shop, the Sign of the Golden Eagle, near the Court-House, Providence.”

Other entrepreneurs who advertised in the Providence Gazette provided directions to aid prospective customers in finding their places of business. E. Thompson and Company stocked a variety of merchandise “At their STORE, near the Great Bridge.” Samuel Chaice also relied solely on a prominent landmark when he advised readers of the inventory “At his Store, just below the Great Bridge, in Providence.” Others deployed a combination of landmarks and shop signs. James Arnold and Company, for instance, promoted an assortment of goods available “At their STORE, the Sign of the GOLDEN FOX, near the Great Bridge.” Clark and Nightingale invited customers to visit them “At their Store, the Sign of the Fish and Frying-Pan, opposite Oliver Arnold’s, Esquire.” The colophon doubled as an advertisement for job printing done “by JOHN CARTER, at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespears Head.”

Those advertisements that included shop signs also developed a brand that identified the proprietors, though not necessarily their merchandise. The shop signs became sufficient identification for their enterprises, as was the case with the Russells’ advertisement that did not list their names but instead simply noted readers could purchase tar, pitch, and turpentine “at the GOLDEN EAGLE.” The Russells were among the most prominent merchants in Providence. They were also the most prolific advertisers in the Providence Gazette in the late 1760s. As a result, they did not need to provide their names or further directions in some of their advertisements. They trusted that the public was already familiar with the sign of the “GOLDEN EAGLE,” so familiar as to render any additional information superfluous. Their frequent advertisements aided in associating the image of the “GOLDEN EAGLE” with their business and their commercial identity.