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.

May 29

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

May 29 - 5:26:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 26, 1768).

“Said Humphreys makes, and has now on Hand, a large Quantity of good Sickles, Scythes.”

Stephen Paschall and Benjamin Humphreys jointly placed an advertisement in the May 26, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. In it, they promoted several items they both manufactured, including “Screws for Clothiers, Timber-Carriages, Tobacconists, [and] Packing” and “Iron Work for Grist-Mills, Saw-Mills, and Fulling-Mills.” In addition, Paschall announced that he made and sold bellows for blacksmith forges on Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Similarly, Humphreys marketed sickles, scythes, and other cutlery that he made and sold at the corner of Ninth and Market Streets.

Their advertisement included a visual image uniquely associated with Humphreys’s business: a woodcut of a sickle mounted on a handle suspended from a scythe blade. This image likely approximated a sign that marked Humphreys’s workshop. That would explain why a single link connected the two blades. Each blade also bore the name HUMPHREYS, identifying the artisan but also marking his place of business. Humphreys did not advise prospective customers that his workshop was located at the Sign of the Scythe and Sickle, but given that he expressed concern that his “Distance from Market” might “discourage his Friends, and others” from visiting his shop he may have considered it most important to list the cross streets by name and allow the woodcut to speak for itself in terms of the sign that marked his location. Relatively few American shop signs that predate the Revolution survive, but woodcuts that accompanied newspaper advertisements suggest some of the marketing images colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of cities and towns.

For modern researchers, this image raises a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of consulting digital surrogates to the exclusion of original sources. I downloaded a PDF of the entire May 26, 1768, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. As the image above reveals, the photography and remediation of the original source make it difficult to discern that the name HUMPHREYS does indeed appear on the blades. This was a detail I overlooked the first time I read the advertisement and only noticed when I gave the woodcut additional scrutiny. To determine whether I had mistaken the shading of the blades with a depiction of the artisan’s name, I visited the American Antiquarian Society to examine an original issue. The photograph below confirms that the name HUMPHREYS appears quite legibly, much more so than the digital surrogate suggests. In many ways, working with microfilm and digital images can be much more efficient than consulting originals. Both formats provide greater access while also preserving original documents. But they must be used judiciously. Sometimes examining the original yields information otherwise unavailable, as was the case with Benjamin Humphrey’s woodcut in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

May 29 - 5:26:1768 Detail AAS Pennsylvania Gazette
Detail of Paschall and Humphreys Advertisement in May 26, 1768 edition of Pennsylvania Gazette. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

February 27

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

Feb 27 - 2:27:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (February 27, 1768).

“At the Sign of the Brazen Lion.”

Its length alone would have made Edward Thurber’s advertisement in the February 27, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette difficult to miss. Listing dozens of items he offered for sale, it extended for nearly an entire column. Yet Thurber did not rely solely on the amount of space the advertisement occupied to attract the attention of potential customers. He incorporated a bit of visual flair by inserting a woodcut.

For quite some time he had been advertising in the Providence Gazette, but usually in conjunction with Benjamin Thurber. Their shared notices informed readers that they operated separate shops even though they worked together to acquire merchandise. Benjamin could be found at the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes and Edward at the Sign of the Brazen Lion. They did not insert any images in their joint advertisements, but when Edward commenced advertising on his own he commissioned a woodcut that depicted his Sign of the Brazen Lion. Perhaps he had more creative freedom on his own. Maybe Benjamin had not wished to invest in a corresponding woodcut of the Sign of the Bunch of Grapes. Maybe the partners thought that two woodcuts in a single advertisement would have appeared too crowded or too confusing. Maybe they mutually determined that when they bought space in the local newspaper that they wanted to fill it with copy rather than woodcuts. Whatever their reasons, the Thurbers did not experiment with visual images in their joint advertisements. That changed when Edward advertised separately.

Although it did inject a visual element into his advertisement, Edward’s woodcut was rather primitive compared to some that accompanied advertisements in newspapers published in larger cities, especially New York and Philadelphia. His woodcut quite literally depicted a signpost with a crudely carved lion suspended from it. While not the most impressive woodcut, it does testify to a sight that colonists would have glimpsed as they traversed the streets of Providence. Apparently Edward Thurber’s sign was not a board painted with the image of a lion but rather a piece of wood carved into either a two- or three-dimensional lion. In and of itself, such a sign would have been a significant investment, but well worth the price as it became a brand consistently used on the exterior of the shop and in newspaper advertisements. Edward Thurber further advanced his use of this brand in his advertising by including a woodcut that visually reiterated the copy that directed potential customers to “the Sign of the Brazen Lion.”

September 21

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

Sep 21 - 9:21:1767 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (September 21, 1767).

“New Shop at the Sign of the Naked Boy.”

George Bartram launched a new venture in 1767, opening his own shop “at the Sign of the Naked Boy” on Second Street in Philadelphia. To let both former and potential new customers know about his new location, he published an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Bartram promoted the “general Assortment of dry Goods, imported in the last Vessels from Great-Britain and Ireland,” but he did not confine himself to merely describing the goods he stocked. Instead, he included a woodcut that featured some of the textiles he imported and hoped to sell to consumers in the port city. A cartouche in the center depicted a naked boy examining a length of cloth, encouraging potential customers to imagine themselves inspecting Bartram’s merchandise. That the boy held the fabric close to his naked body suggested quality and softness, enticing readers to anticipate the luxurious pleasures that awaited them at Bartram’s shop. Many rolls of fabric flanked the central cartouche, testifying to the “general Assortment” of merchandise. What kinds of tactile sensations might shoppers experience when they compared the weave of one fabric to another? The naked boy surrounded by textiles of all sorts invited colonists to visit Bartram’s shop, where they did not need to confine themselves merely to window shopping but could indulge their sense of touch as well as sight.

The woodcut also included the proprietor’s name on either side of the cartouche, an unnecessary flourish in an advertisement that featured Bartram’s name as a headline. Its inclusion may have been necessary, however, if the woodcut doubled as an accurate representation of the “Sign of the Naked Boy” that marked Bartram’s shop. The shopkeeper had previously conducted business at a “Shop lately occupied by Bartram and Lennox.” To mark his new shop as exclusively his own, Bartram may have instructed the painter or carver who made his sign to include his name as well as the device he intended to serve as his brand. Eighteenth-century advertisements regularly indicate which shop signs marked which businesses, but few of those signs have survived. Woodcuts like the naked boy in Bartram’s advertisement suggest what colonists may have seen as they traversed the streets and visited retailers and artisans who used signs to mark their businesses.

June 18

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

Jun 18 - 6:18:1767 Massachusetts Gazette.jpg
Massachusetts Gazette (June 18, 1767).

“At the Sign of the Two Wheat-Sheaves.”

According to his advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette, William Hill, a baker in Boston, made and sold “Ship Bread,” biscuits, and gingerbread at “the Bake House” appropriately marked with “the Sign of the Two Wheat-Sheaves.” In an era before standardized street numbers organized the streets of towns and cities, shop signs helped both entrepreneurs and customers identify and locate businesses of all sorts. Some shopkeepers and artisans also used the devices depicted on their signs as rudimentary brands, sometimes adopting similar visual images in newspaper advertisements as well as on magazine wrappers, trade cards, and billheads.

Not every advertiser had his or her own shop sign, but that did not prevent them from using the signs of others who ran businesses nearby as landmarks to guide potential customers to their own shops. In the same issue that Hill promoted the breads he sold “at the Sign of the Two Wheat-Sheaves,” Nathaniel Cudworth reported that he kept shop “in KING-STREET, opposite the Sign of Admiral Vernon.” Similarly, Joseph Domett gave the location of his store as “nearly opposite the GOLDEN BALL.” That Domett gave no other directions, not even a street name, suggests the Golden Ball was widely recognized by residents of Boston. The shopkeeper expected potential customers to already be familiar with that landmark, a common point of reference for advertiser and reader alike.

Even without woodcuts depicting the Sign of the Two Wheat-Sheaves, the Golden Ball, or the Sign of Admiral Vernon, the advertisements reveal some of the visual culture of eighteenth-century streets. Advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette and other newspapers published in Boston named dozens of signs present in the city in 1767, a vibrant display that served several purposes but now can only be imagined. Sighting various signs aided colonists as they navigated through cities. Signs also enticed colonists to become customers as they encountered them because marketing efforts encouraged consumers to associate certain signs with particular businesses and the men and women who ran them.