May 4

GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Waters

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

May 4 - 5:4:1769 Massachusetts Gazette Draper
Massachusetts Gazette [Draper] (May 4, 1769).
“Spermaceti Candles.”

In 2019 light is one of the most abundant resources that we have. Simply flip a switch and to illuminate an entire room with almost no effort. However, 250 years ago colonists needed to burn a candle to produce a small amount of light, accompanied by smoke and smell. Richard Smith published this advertisement for his sale of “Spermaceti Candles, by the quantity or single Box” on May 4, 1769. These spermaceti candles were created from the oils harvested from the heads of sperm whales. They were of much better quality than the typical tallow candle. The reason that spermaceti candles were much more desirable than others was that they would burn brighter, produce less odor, and little smoke. This was particularly important to people striving for a cleaner source of light. These candles were also far superior during the warm summer months because they were more resistant to heat. Unlike tallow candles, these high-quality candles would not bend and warp due to the heat and humidity. Because these candles were far superior to the typical tallow candle, they were very expensive and would typically be purchased by those who could afford the luxury. For more information, see Emily Irwin’s article on “The Spermaceti Candle and the American Whaling Industry.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Richard Smith sold spermaceti candles at his store in King Street in Boston, but he was not a chandler. The candles were among the many items, “an Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS,” that he sold at that location, though he did give them particular prominence in his advertisement in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. “Spermaceti Candles” served as a second headline, appearing in font the same size as Smith’s name.

While that may have been the result of design decisions made by the compositor, Smith certainly exercised control over the copy of the advertisement. He chose to highlight various aspects of the candles and merely make a nod to his other wares. For instance, he allowed customers to purchase as many or as few candles as they needed or could afford, offering them “by the Quantity or single Box.” More significantly, he offered assurances about the quality of the spermaceti candles he sold. Smith proclaimed that they were “Manufactured by Daniel Jeackes & Com. at Providence, warranted pure, and free from any Adulteration.” As Patrick notes, the materials for making spermaceti candles were rare compared to tallow or beeswax candles, which made them more expensive for consumers and introduced the possibility that chandlers had diluted the materials during the production process. To ward off any such suspicions, Smith named the manufacturers, Daniel Jeackes and Company, giving prospective customers the opportunity to assess their reputation for themselves. Even if readers were not already familiar with spermaceti candles produced by Jeackes and Company, Smith offered a warranty that they were “pure, and free from any Adulteration.” Presumably this was also a marketing strategy that Jeackes and Company deployed when they supplied Smith with the candles.

This sort of strategy was a common element of advertisements for spermaceti candles in eighteenth-century newspapers. On the same day that Smith’s advertisement ran in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, another advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti Candles” appeared in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. It simply stated that the candles were “Warranted pure,” acknowledging the concerns of consumers but not providing nearly as much detail. Smith provided more powerful reassurances by naming the chandlers and commenting on the purity of the candles at greater length. He made those qualities, rather than the candles themselves, the centerpiece of his advertisement.

April 11

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (April 10, 1769).

“Sperma-Caeti CANDLES.”

In this advertisement from the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette for April 10, 1769, Richard Smith sold “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” at his store on King Street. What are spermaceti candles? According to Emily Irwin, the materials to make spermaceti candles came from sperm whales. Those materials were supplied by the whaling industry. Spermaceti candles burned longer, cleaner, and brighter than other candles made from tallow (animal fat) or beeswax, making them a popular choice. Spermaceti candles were the height of the candle-making technology for Americans in the eightheenth and nineteenth centuries. Irwin states, “The spermaceti candle represents a changing society and an evolving culture; a culture that was constantly striving for a clean burning and more efficient means by which to light the darkness.”[1]

Despite the high cost of these candles, Americans were willing to pay for them, but only the richest of Americans could afford to fully enjoy the benefits of spermaceti candles. These candles were made from the “head matter” which was an oily substance that came from sperm whales. This material was hard to acquire, especially compared to tallow and beeswax. Spermaceti candles were often made in port towns such as Providence or Boston.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Edes and Gill had too much content to fit all of it into the standard four-page edition of the Boston-Gazette on Monday, April 10, 1769. As the masthead proclaimed, they published “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestic.” Some of those “Advices” were news items and editorials. Others were paid notices that also delivered news, such as an advertisement offering a reward for capturing the perpetrator of a theft that recently occurred at John Carnes’s shop in Boston and another that advised landholders to pay taxes on their property in Berkshire County or risk having their land sold at public auction. Even advertisements for goods and services counted among “the freshest Advices” as they informed readers of upcoming concerts, ships seeking passengers and freight in advance of departing for London, and all sorts of fashionable textiles and housewares in stock in local shops.

The printers had so much content that many of the paid notices overflowed into a separate supplement devoted entirely to advertising. Richard Smith’s advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” and “an Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS” was one of two dozen that ran in the supplement. On the same day, the Boston Evening-Post also issued a two-page supplement, though advertising comprised only one of those pages. To the south, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury distributed its own two-page supplement filled with paid notices. Half a dozen other newspapers were also published throughout the colonies, from Massachusetts to South Carolina, on April 10, 1769. Each of them carried a significant amount of advertising, even if the printers did not have so many as to justify distributing a supplement. Green and Russell even squeezed a short advertisement into the bottom margin of the first page of the Massachusetts Gazette. Peter Crammer’s advertisement for “Choice Liver Oyl” ran as a single line across all three columns.

All of these examples demonstrate the popularity of advertising in eighteenth-century America. Printers certainly appreciated the revenues, squeezing as many advertisements as possible into each issue and distributing supplements when they did not have enough space. Many advertisers likely considered such marketing a necessary investment. Smith’s advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” ran between John Langdon’s advertisement for “Best Sperma Ceti Candles” and “Isaac White’s advertisement for “Dipp’d Tallow Candles.” With so many competitors advertising their wares in the public prints, Smith likely considered it imperative to do so as well or risk losing out on his share of the market.

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[1] Emily Irwin, “The Spermaceti Candle and the American Whaling Industry,” Historia 21 (2012), 45.

April 22

GUEST CURATOR: Trevor Delp

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

Apr 22 - 4:22:1766 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (April 21, 1766)

“SpermaCeti Candles of the best Manufacture, warranted pure.”

In today’s advertisement spermaceti candles were being sold. Spermaceti candles are candles made out of headmatter from sperm whales. Massachusetts history is rich with whaling culture. According to the Nantucket Historical Association, “Candles were considered a specialized element of the whale-oil trade and were priced as a luxury item.” Spermaceti candles burned brighter and also were odorless. This made them a very attractive commodity and far more expensive than the traditional tallow candles.

In the early eighteenth century colonists first started coming across pods of sperm whales, but it was not until the 1750s that spermaceti oil refining started taking place. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, sperm whales were difficult to hunt because they have the ability to dive upwards of three thousand feet, deeper than any other marine animal, and hold their breath for up to ninety minutes. This made hunting them with the rudimentary seafaring technology of the eighteenth century both impressive and lucrative, an endeavor that also came with great danger. These candles were pivotal to life before electricity.

Although the major boom of whaling in New England would not come until the nineteenth century, I still found it interesting that Boston newspapers were advertising spermaceti candles in the 1760s. Patty Jo Rice of the Nantucket Historical Association says, “By 1763 there were as many as twelve manufacturers in the colonies and accusations of pricing violations was commonplace.” This points to development of the whaling market that was not completely documented at the time and that can be hard trace. Today’s advertisement helps to demonstrate that whaling and whale products were becoming increasingly popular in colonial America.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Testaments to quality were among the most common appeals made in eighteenth-century advertisements. Henry Lloyd mobilized such an appeal more than once in today’s advertisement, first when he described the pork he sold as “choice” and again when he assured potential customers that his “SpermaCeti Candles” were both “of the best Manufacture” and “warranted pure.”

The promise that theses candles were “warranted pure” merits additional investigation. Drawing once again from the Nantucket Historical Association, we know that “headmatter, sperm oil (oil from the blubber of the sperm whale), and whale oil (from all other whales) became separate products in the marketplace with headmatter commanding an average of three times the price of standard whale oil.” When shipping these products to England, whaling merchants sometimes mixed whale oil and headmatter together to avoid the higher duties on headmatter. That being the case, colonial consumers could be justifiably suspicious when purchasing spermaceti candles. If headmatter and whale oil could be combined to lower the duties when exported, why not combine them to raise the price of candles made and sold in the colonies? In an era with far fewer regulations than the modern business environment, Henry Lloyd gave his word that customers who purchased relatively expensive spermaceti candles were not being duped or cheated.

Lloyd was not alone in doing so. “Warranted Pure” was a standard assurance offered to consumers in advertisements for spermaceti candles in the decade before the American Revolution. A Boston manufactory issued a trade card circa 1770 that announced “Sperma-ceti candles warranted pure; are made by Joseph Palmer & Co.” The collections of the John Carter Brown Library include this trade card, circa 1764, from Nicholas Brown and Company in Providence. It also promised that customers could purchase spermaceti candles that were “Warranted Pure.” Note the whale in the center and the whalers in the cartouche at the top.

Apr 22 - Spermaceti Trade Card
Nicholas Brown & Co. trade card for spermaceti candles, ca. 1764 (John Carter Brown Library.)