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.

March 5

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

mar-5-35-1767-pennsylvania-gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (March 5, 1767).

“Quilted or plain Carrying Saddles.”

“JOHN YOUNG, senior, SADLER,” operated a workshop “In Second-street, opposite the Baptist Meeting, and next Door to Mr. Alexander Huston’s,” in Philadelphia. Elsewhere in the city “JOHN YOUNG, jun. Saddler,” ran his own shop “At the sign of the ENGLISH HUNTING SADDLE, at the corner of Market and Front-streets, and opposite the LONDON COFFEE-HOUSE.” The younger Young likely learned his trade from the elder Young. Which one taught the other about the power of advertising? Was that also passed down from one generation to the next? Or did the senior Young eventually adopt marketing strategies on the recommendation of his son (or perhaps even to compete with him)?

mar-5-491767-pennsylvania-chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (March 9, 1767).

Both Youngs advertised in newspapers printed in Philadelphia in early March 1767, the elder Young in the established Pennsylvania Gazette and the junior saddler in the new Pennsylvania Chronicle. Although both included woodcuts of saddles in their notices, the younger Young seems to have been the more sophisticated marketer when it came to mobilizing an image to identify his products. Note that Young Sr. merely listed directions to aid potential customers in finding his workshop, yet Young Jr. created a brand for his business that operated at “the sign of the ENGLISH HUNTING SADDLE.” Score one for the younger Young’s innovative marketing.

The saddlers offered almost identical appeals concerning quality, price, and fashion. Young Sr. stated that “he makes in the neatest and most Fashionable Manner, and sells at the most reasonable Rates” a variety of saddles and other riding equipment. In turn, Young Jr. announced that “he makes in the best and most fashionable manner, and sells at the most reasonable rates” a similar array of leather goods. Both indicated that they had sufficient inventory “ready made” that they could sell in quantity, though the elder saddler edged out his son by offering “proper Abatement to those who buy to sell again.” In other words, retailers received a bulk discount. Score one for the elder Young’s innovative pricing.

The two saddlers seemed to address slightly different clientele. Although both asserted they made saddles “in the most fashionable Manner,” Young Jr. placed more emphasis on serving elite customers. He listed “GENTLEMEN’S English hunting” saddles first among his wares (and the format of the advertisement directed readers’ eyes to the word “gentlemen”) and underscored that he did his work “in the genteelest manner.” On the other hand, Young Sr. thanked gentlemen and merchants for their previous patronage, but he included appreciation for “Shallopmen, and others” in the same sentence. One saddler traded on exclusivity for elite customers, while the other made his workshop more accessible to clients from all backgrounds. In the end, which marketing method yielded greater revenues by attracting more business? For now, that should be considered a draw.

Whether the Youngs competed or cooperated with each other, they devised advertisements that shared some of the most common appeals deployed in commercial notices printed in newspapers throughout the eighteenth century. Each other advanced unique and innovative marketing strategies, demonstrating that advertising in early America amounted to more than mere announcements that particular vendors sold certain goods.

In Which Addresses in Adverts Reveal Changing Conceptions of Urban Landscapes in Early America

I have devoted several years to studying advertising in early America. As the project has unfolded, I have discovered that some people are drawn to certain advertisements because the addresses they include seem quaint or charming compared to modern systems of dividing up space and denoting locations. I’m content that old-fashioned addresses, those that lack a street number but instead rely on landmarks or familiarity with the surrounding area, encourage others to learn more about what the other elements of advertisements reveal about early American life and culture. However, I also try to make the case that the addresses themselves consist of more than just obligatory or introductory material to commercial notices. The addresses, in whatever form they happened to take, also reveal quite a bit about the world inhabited by eighteenth-century Americans.

Whenever possible, I have noted the location or directions provided in eighteenth-century advertisements (including “At the Sign of the Black Boy” in yesterday’s advertisement from tobacconist Augustus Deley), exploring what they tell us about early American life and culture. Some advertisements featured earlier this week also suggested the connections early Americans made among politics, commerce, and their conceptions of the spaces and places around them, including Barnabas Clarke’s shop “Near Liberty-Bridge” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Adam Collson selling wool “Under the TREE of LIBERTY” in Boston. In both instances, the advertisements referenced recent protests against the Stamp Act.

In many cases the addresses included in advertisements help to demonstrate change over time, how much our understanding of commerce and the urban landscape has changed in last quarter of a millennium. In other instances, however, the locations – especially shop signs – testify to continuity as much as change. Consumers may not look for the “Golden Key” or the “Sign of Admiral Vernon” any longer, but they do easily recognize a sign with a stylized red target or a pair of golden arches.

For the most part, modern businesses identify their location with a standardized address, even if their advertising offers additional information and directions to help potential customers find them. (Some advertising explicitly notes which standardized street address should be entered in a GPS device in order for customers to successfully navigate to their place of business.) Yet numbered street addresses do not appear in advertisements from 1766. When did this become a common practice? Once again, we have to look to the eighteenth century, though in this case the last decades of that century, to witness this innovation. Advertisements, along with other sources from the period, help us to understand how consumers reimagined urban spaces.

Under the pressure of increasing population growth, economic development, and urban expansion, residents of Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other urban ports devised new ways of positioning themselves within the urban landscape, creating a new spatial geography that helped orient residents in these more complex commercial cities. As David M. Henkin stresses in his examination of antebellum New York, “urban texts,” including advertisements, street signs, and building numbers, became “indispensable guides” that helped residents and visitors maneuver through the city and its increasing commercial abundance. They were also “apt symbols for a new kind of public life,” marking “the streets as belonging to an inclusive and undifferentiated public of potential readers.”[1]

The prosaic directions listed in advertisements both registered and promoted these changes in mapping the cityscape. Let’s use Philadelphia as an example. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the city was small and easy to navigate. Colonists in 1735, for example, would have been able to purchase pickled sturgeon by following directions in a newspaper advertisement that was no more specific than “Caleb Elfreth in Third-Street.” Elfreth’s advertisement was typical of others that also appeared in the June 19, 1735, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Others directed potential customers to “Mrs. Mankin” or “Miles Strickland … in Market-Street.” Some also included landmarks, including an advertisement for soap available at the “New Printing Office” and Theophilus Grew’s school “Over-against the Post-Office in Second-Street.” One advertiser made reference to a shop sign, “the Crooked Billet in Front-Street.” The city was compact enough and its population small enough that potential customers could find commercial places and people with minimal and unstandardized directions, using qualitative visual markers.

Time ran out on these older ways of marking the urban landscape during the second half of the century. Philadelphians were still likely to know the retailers who lived and worked in their neighborhoods and sometimes the locations of businesses elsewhere, especially when they had operated in the same spot for a number of years. But potential customers could no longer be counted on to know the whereabouts of most businesses, both because there were many more new commercial places and because a higher proportion of the city’s residents were newcomers. Accordingly, directions in advertisements became more specific and uniform. By the 1780s and 1790s, advertisers began to list locations that included “on the corner of Market and Third Streets,” “Front, between Arch and Race Streets,” and “Chesnut, the third door above Front street.” These were the locations or directions provided by W. Coulthard, Rundle and Murgatroyd, and Robert Smock, respectively, all in the July 5, 1790, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet. By this time other advertisers used numbered street addresses, both in newspapers and on other advertising media. For instance, James and Henry Reynolds listed their address as “56 Market Street” on their furniture label.[2] Apothecary Townsend Speakman’s billhead included “4 Second Street” as his address.[3]

Although some advertisers continued to rely on older ways of signaling location, including references to landmarks and the like, these began to look decidedly old-fashioned by the 1780s and, especially, the 1790s in the wake of city directories that listed a numbered street address for all residences and businesses. Some advertisers did incorporate traditional means of giving directions with newer forms, as did Thomas Dobson, a bookseller and stationer at “the New STONE HOUSE in Second street below Market street the seventh door above Chesnut Street” on his billhead in 1789.[4] Some advertisers also continued to refer to their shop signs, but this became less a way to signal location than one among several ways of branding their wares and their businesses. All in all, the newer directions that appeared in advertisements (in newspapers and other media) helped to disseminate a more standardized way of imagining the city spatially in the last decades of the century.

**********

[1] David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Word and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), x, 40.

[2] James and Henry Reynolds’ furniture label, Decorative Arts Photograph Collection, Winterthur Library.

[3] Townsend Speakman’s billhead, “Bot. of Townsend Speakman” (Philadelphia: 1789), Stauffer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[4] Thomas Dobson’s billhead, “Bot. of Thomas Dobson,” (Philadelphia: 1789), Levi Hollingsworth Receipted Bills, Society Small Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

January 29

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

Jan 29 - 1:28:1766 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (January 18, 1766)

“At the Sight of the Mathematical Instruments, next Door to the Golden Eagle, in Thames-Street.”

Sometimes the directions for locating a business are just as interesting as the merchandise offered for sale, at least to someone observing from a distance of 250 years.  I’ve commented fairly regularly about various modes of identifying where a business happened to be located, especially when such directions crowded out appeals that could have marketed goods and services to potential customers.  (On the other hand, advertisers couldn’t sell anything if customers couldn’t find them.)  Last week I even made sport of an attorney who provided unnecessarily convoluted and legalistic directions to his office.  Providing adequate directions was a part of doing business in the days before standardized street numbers (an innovation that appeared in many American cities around the final decade of the century).

This advertisement does not make reference to cross streets or counting the number of doors after arriving at an intersection.  It simply states that this shop is located “At the Sight of the Mathematical Instruments, next Door to the Golden Eagle, in Thames-Street.”  Contemporary visual images of streetscapes in colonial American cities are relatively rare, but advertisements like this one help to envision what colonists would have seen as they went about their daily business.

Contemplating “the Sight of the Mathematical Instruments” or “the Golden Eagle” evokes days gone by.  It might even seem quaint, but I’m not certain that the American consumer landscape has changed as significantly as we might like to imagine.  After all, how many people actually know the street address of the fast food restaurant where they grab a quick lunch or the store where they buy everything from bread to toys to clothes?  I’m guessing that most people look for golden arches or a big red target rather than a street number.

Also, note what kinds of merchandise Benjamin King sells and the sign that announces the location of his shop to potential customers.  Clever.

January 11

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

Jan 11 - 1:10:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (January 10, 1766)

“NATHANIEL BABB, Taylor, … informs his Customers and others, That he has removed from the Shop where he formerly Work’t to a new Shop.”

Who hasn’t heard a particular hackneyed phrase — “Location!  Location!  Location! — when contemplating buying a home or, especially, opening a business.  Nathaniel Babb understood that location was important:  he could not remain in business if former and potential customers did not know where to find him.  His advertisement offers few appeals to consumers (though he does indicate he was “ready with Fidelity and Dispatch”) in favor of instead making sure that they knew where to find him after his move to a new location.

Many shopkeepers and artisans used elaborate shop signs, such as the one seen below, to identify their places of business in eighteenth-century America (and England as well), but not everyone did so.  In an era before standardized street numbers, Babb offers convoluted directions:  his shop was “lately erected near the Corner of Clement Jackson’s, in the Street leading to the Canoe Bridge.”  Even if Babb had a sign to hang at his new shop, he still needed to direct customers to the general vicinity.

Philip Godfrid Kast Trade Card
Philip Godfrid Kast’s trade card engraved by Nathaniel Hurd in Boston in 1774 (American Antiquarian Society).

The druggist who issued this trade card included an image of his shop sign, an early form of branding that helped customers remember and locate his business.

January 9

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

Jan 9 - 1:9:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (January 9, 1766)

“PAINTS.  White. … Reds. … Yellows. … Blues. … Greens. … Blacks. … Varnishes.”

The three columns in John Gore’s advertisement for paints and related supplies draw the eye.  Unlike the dense layout of the list advertisement featured yesterday, Gore’s notice uses varying font sizes and, especially, white space to direct potential customers’ attention to some of his wares.

I am resisting the urge to assume that it was only natural to use columns to organize this advertisement simply because doing so makes good sense, from a modern perspective, for several reasons.  It provides better organization and highlights individual products.  Such line of reasoning did not always seem to hold sway with eighteenth-century advertisers, however, as they often opted for dense paragraphs listing goods and occasionally experimented with fonts, sizes, and layout.

The longer I study early American advertising, the more strongly I become convinced that advertisers sometimes played a role in determining the appearance of their notices, but most often the printer who set the type played the most influential role.  What was the case here?  Did Gore request that his paints be divided into three columns?  Or did the printer make this decision without consulting the advertiser?