What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“The FLYING MACHINE.”
Partners John Barnhill and John Mercereau took different approaches to adverting their stage wagon service between New York and Philadelphia in 1770. Barnhill was responsible for operations in Philadelphia, while Mercereau ran his portion of the business in New York. Presumably, each partner handled marketing in the city at his end of the circuit.
Barnhill placed a brief advertisement in the August 6, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Extending only three lines, it announced that “The FLYING MACHINE, kept by JOHN BARNHILL in Elm-street, sets out for New-York, on Mondays and Thursdays, and performs the Journey in TWO DAYS.” A small manicule directed readers to the notice, but otherwise it was unadorned. (The printing ornaments below the advertisement were part of the colophon that appeared in every issue rather decoration Barnhill selected for his advertisement.) Barnhill seemingly relied on an established reputation for the stage wagon, emphasizing the speed of the journey. In just “TWO DAYS” passengers and freight practically flew to New York like birds in the wonderous “FLYING MACHINE” that Barnhill maintained.
That same day, Mercereau placed a much more lavish advertisement in the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. It featured a woodcut depicting a covered wagon drawn by two horses. A driver wielded a whip encouraged even greater speed, enhancing the image of horses and wagon in motion. The woodcut occupied one-third of the space of the advertisement. Except for the masthead and an image of a ship in another advertisement, this was the only image in that issue of the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy. As a result, it likely attracted even greater attention to Mercereau’s advertisement. (Absent other evidence, it would be tempting to assume that Mercereau made an additional investment to commission a unique woodcut to represent his business, but earlier in the year a competitor used a nearly identical image on the same page as Mercereau’s advertisement. The presence of both suggests that they were lesser-used stock images that belonged to the printer, not unlike images of ships, houses, horses, and enslaved people. See the July 23 and 30 editions.)
In the advertising copy, Mercereau acknowledged his partner “in Elm Street, in Philadelphia” and listed his sign, “the New Blazing-Star,” near New York as his address. Like Barnhill, he conjured up impressions of speed, but with a blazing star or comet rather than a flying machine. Mercereau provided a much more extensive overview of the schedule. The stage wagons left both Philadelphia and Powles Hook Ferry across the river from New York at sunrise on Mondays and Thursdays. They met at Princeton in the evening. The following morning, the drivers exchanged passengers and freight before returning to their respective cities. With that schedule in mind, Mercereau assured prospective clients that it was “very safe for any Person to send Goods” because with only two drivers “they may exchange their Goods without any Mistake” at the only stop along the route. He also stressed that a round trip took only five days: two days to get to Philadelphia, then “two Nights and one Day to do their Business in” Philadelphia, and finally two days to return to New York.
Mercereau also promoted the “best of Waggons,” the “sober Drivers,” and “four Setts of fresh Horses” that made the journey comfortable, safe, and speedy for passengers and freight. Furthermore, he promised that “this Road is much the shortest” between New York and Philadelphia. He also listed the prices so prospective clients could determine the value for themselves.
Why did Barnhill and Mercereau take such different approaches to advertising their shared enterprise in Philadelphia’s newspapers and New York’s newspapers? Perhaps Barnhill established a more robust clientele in Philadelphia than Mercereau had managed in New York. No matter the reason, the advertisements placed in both cities provide greater detail for understanding the operations in each city.