August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:7:1769 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 7, 1769).

“JOHN MASON, Upholsterer, PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customers that he has removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house.”

As the imperial crisis intensified in the late 1760s, newspaper advertisements for consumer goods and services increasingly incorporated political messages intended to sway prospective customers. Many such advertisements underscored the benefits of encouraging “domestic manufactures” to achieve greater self-sufficiency and the virtues of purchasing those locally produced goods. Those advertisements often connected their “Buy American” appeals to faithful adherence to nonimportation agreements adopted to resist Parliament’s attempts to enact new taxes, first via the Stamp Act and later through imposing duties on certain imported goods via the Townshend Acts.

Such advertisements became a genre that deployed similar language and took similar forms. In his attempt to sell mattresses and market his services as an upholsterer, John Mason took an even bolder approach. Like other purveyors of goods and services, he turned to the public prints to inform prospective customers when he moved locations. The language he used, however, had distinct political overtones that certainly resonated with debates taking place in newspapers as well as in taverns, coffeehouses, and the public square. Mason trumpeted that he “PRAYS for LIBERTY to inform his friends and customer that he removed his PROPERTY, to a new built house … where he carries on the Upholstery Business.” The word “PRAYS” appeared in capitals because it was the first word in the body of the advertisement. “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY,” however, apparently appeared in capitals because Mason specified that they needed appropriate emphasis. The upholsterer invoked two of the most important concepts animating resistance to Parliament.

Readers could hardly have missed the point when they considered “LIBERTY” and “PROPERTY” in combination with the nota bene that Mason appended to his advertisement. “No WONDER that Liberty is the Common Cry,” Mason lectured, “for if it was not the inanimate creation would cry out against us, for the very flowers, they, when deprived of their Liberty, Choose Death Rather, than be Confined in the softest bosom.—Methinks a Moment’s Reflections would Convince those that would Deprive us of our Liberty and property that they are Doing WRONG – for if our Fathers have No Right to Deprive us of our Liberty and property after Twenty-one Years, Certainly out Mother* can have No Right after we have enjoyed it near an Hundred Years. *Mother Country.” In this sermon on liberty, Mason looked to the history of the colonies for guidance and precedents. Parliament could not suddenly impose regulations the colonies after more than a century of allowing them to govern themselves through their own colonial assemblies. Furthermore, the stark choice between liberty and death so was evident that it could be witnessed even in the natural world, as Mason attested in his example of flowers that dies when held too closely, even in the most loving embrace.

At a time when many purveyors of consumer goods and services crafted advertisements that either implicitly or softly invoked politics to influence prospective customers, Mason made a full-throated declaration of his political sentiments. Inserting this editorial into his advertisement allowed him to demonstrate his politics to customers. In addition to adding his voice to the discourse unfolding in the public prints, Mason also intended to encourage customers to support his business because they agreed with his politics and admired his bold stance.

December 15

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

Dec 15 - 12:15:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (December 15, 1767).

“She continues the Upholstery Business with Mr. COLEMAN.”

Rebecca Weyman’s advertisement announcing that “she continues the Upholstery Business” demonstrated what was possible for women participating in the eighteenth-century marketplace, though not necessarily what was probable. Relatively few women placed newspaper advertisements publicizing the goods and services they provided during the colonial era. Of those who did resort to the advertising to promote their business endeavors, most were shopkeepers, seamstresses, milliners and schoolmistresses. Each pursued occupations widely considered appropriate for women. Seamstresses and, especially, milliners might have been considered artisans, but their work depended on skills traditionally associated with women’s labor within the household. Their presence in the marketplace and the public prints did not disrupt prevailing gender expectations.

On occasion, other female artisans ran advertisements, but they were small in number among both the general population and advertisers. Those who did place newspaper advertisements often did so in collaboration with a male relative, supervisor, or partner, perhaps as a means of tamping down apprehensions that they participated in the market in ways that deviated from what was considered appropriate for women. Note that Rebecca Weyman appended her own advertisement to the conclusion of Thomas Coleman’s much lengthier notice. In it, she specified that she “continues the Upholstery Business with Mr. COLEMAN.” For his part, Coleman indicated that he operated the business “At Mr. Edward Weyman’s.” The female upholsterer had both a business partner and a male relation overseeing her work. This gave her additional security to earn a living as an upholsterer by sanctioning her endeavors and shielding her from criticism. In a marketplace dominated by men, Rebecca Weyman mobilized her affiliation with these particular men as a means of giving her more freedom to operate her business, doing her best to transform constraint into opportunity.

Not all female advertisers, however, opted to establish masculine oversight of their business endeavors in their advertisements. An advertisement for a female shopkeeper appeared in the same column of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, placed by “FRANCES SWALLOW, SOLE-TRADER.” Among the colonies, South Carolina had a fairly unique legal designation for married women who operated businesses independently of their husbands: sole trader. Swallow established her autonomy in the first line of her advertisement, adopting a very different strategy than Weyman. Perhaps Rebecca Weyman believed that allowing Thomas Coleman to do the bulk of the marketing in their joint advertisement allowed her to attract attention for her services without attracting condemnation for her intrusion into the marketplace.

December 14

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

Dec 14 - 12:14:1767 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (December 14, 1767).

“Webster has had the honour of working, with applause, for several of the nobility and gentry.”

John Webster, an “Upholsterer from London,” knew that establishing his reputation in Philadelphia would help build the clientele for his endeavors in his new location. To that end, he reported in an advertisement in the December 14, 1767, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle that he previously “had the honour of working, with applause, for several of the nobility and gentry, both in England and Scotland.” While providing credentials always helped artisans to promote their businesses, Webster probably did not need to reside in Philadelphia very long to realize that even in the largest city in the colonies the residents experienced anxiety about being perceived as backwater provincials by the better sorts in London, the cosmopolitan center of the empire. He depended on potential customers responding to his pledge of “having their work executed in the best and newest taste,” but indicating that he previously served prominent clients testified to his ability to deliver on that promise.

Yet Webster did not want to give the impression that he had experience only on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition, potential customers may have been skeptical about how extensively he had worked with “several of the nobility and gentry” before arriving in the colony. To alleviate such concerns, Webster extended “his most grateful thanks to those good gentlemen and ladies who have been pleased to honour and favour him with their custom, since he came to Philadelphia.” While this could have also been a ploy, the upholsterer implied that he had already attracted local clients satisfied with his work. Webster created the impression that genteel “ladies and gentlemen” sought after his services. Potential customers who had not yet hire him risked being excluded if they did not contact him before he took on too many other projects.

Webster attempted to attract clients to his upholstery business by creating a buzz among the residents of Philadelphia. Even the location of his new shop, “facing the London Coffee-House,” increased his visibility in the city. His report that he previously served “several of the nobility and gentry” in England and Scotland before working for the “good gentlemen and ladies of Philadelphia” suggested his popularity to colonists concerned with demonstrating their taste and status through the goods they acquired. Implicitly playing on those anxieties, he encouraged them to contract his services in order to keep up with their friends and neighbors.

September 6

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

Sep 6 - 9:3:1767 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 3, 1767).

“BLANCH WHITE, UPHOLSTERER FROM LONDON.”

Colonists lived in an era of intense geographic mobility. In the decade before the Revolution, the flow of immigrants from across the Atlantic accelerated. Even colonists born in North America moved from place to place as they searched for economic opportunities. Many residents of cities and towns up and down the Atlantic coast could not claim to be from the place they now lived. For various reasons, some continued to emphasize their origins even as they became members of new communities.

This was often the case with tailors, cabinetmakers, and other artisans, especially as newcomers attempting to promote their livelihoods in local newspapers. They needed customers, yet determined that maintaining some aspects of their outsider status would effectively attract patrons who were unfamiliar with them and the goods they produced. Artisans who placed advertisements frequently asserted their connections to cosmopolitan centers in Europe. This gave them a certain cachet, suggesting that they made and sold items that were particularly fashionable. In some instances connections to London and other European cities also implied specialized training superior to any undertaken in the colonies.

In the September 3, 1767, edition of the New-York Journal, Blanch White introduced himself to potential customers as an UPHOLSTERER FROM LONDON.” In the same issue, readers also learned of the services of “Charles Le Frou, From PARIS, Perriwig-maker and hair Dresser.” Recent arrivals often used such designations to identify and distinguish themselves, though many advertisements obscured precisely how much time had elapsed since the artisan had lived and worked in London or another cosmopolitan center of fashion and commerce.

White’s advertisement provided some clarification. Even though he pronounced that he was “FROM LONDON,” he also indicated that he “has followed the Business for many Years past in Philadelphia.” Apparently his connection to London was not recent, yet the upholsterer still considered it a selling point worth mentioning to prospective customers. Some advertisers would have been content not to provide additional information about any extended interim between departing London and setting up shop locally, but White sensed an opportunity in acknowledging the time he spent in Philadelphia. Given that he seemed to specialize in martial supplies, he believed that he “must be known to some Gentlemen of the Military in this City.” He extended a direct appeal to former customers and acquaintances that served as an indirect endorsement.

Years after migrating across the Atlantic, Blanch White continued to identify himself as “FROM LONDON,” at least for the purposes of promoting his business in print. Yet he also found value in underscoring the work he had done and the clients he had served for “many Years” in the largest city in the colonies.

July 9

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

Jul 9 - 7:9:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (July 9, 1767).

“He finds it necessary to reduce the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.”

Upholsterer John Mason placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette when he significantly reduced the prices he charged for various services. His method for delivering this information, however, could have used a little refinement. Rather than focus on the deals that benefited prospective customers, Mason offered two other explanations for lowering his fees: “the Stagnation of Business and Scarcity of Cash.” While both of these factors prompted Mason to adjust his prices, neither of them placed customers at the center of Mason’s business model. Overcoming the “Stagnation of Business” was self-serving, hardly a fault for a tradesman trying to make a living but perhaps not the most artful way to frame his motivation fueling the business relationships he hoped to cultivate. He seemed to be saying that current conditions forced him to lower his fees rather than more graciously formulating this as a benefit intended specifically to advantage customers. Acknowledging the “Scarcity of Cash” made a nod toward the concerns of prospective clients. Many may have found themselves in a situation of not being able to afford to hire Mason at the former rates because they did not have access to sufficient cash. The reduced fees made the upholsterer’s services more obtainable.

Still, Mason underplayed the most important appeal in his advertisement. He noted that he had “reduce[d] the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.” In other words, he knocked a tremendous 33% off his prices! Mason set about demonstrating this with a list of the fees he now charged for various services. He even encouraged prospective clients to compare “the above Prices with the Upholsterers Bills” (perhaps handbills distributed or posted by competitors), but this called for readers to expend additional effort to confirm a claim that he made only once rather than asserting it repeatedly and with greater force. Mason made his case, presenting a list of fees as evidence to support it, but the overarching message seems to have been overshadowed by the details. Mason may not have presented too much information, but that does not mean that he optimized the marketing potential associated with significant price reductions.

This critique may not be completely fair to an advertiser who operated within the conventions of eighteenth-century marketing practices. After all, his notice displayed a fair amount of innovation that distinguished it from others. However, it lacked other elements designed to attract attention and generate excitement. Mason opted for practical numbers instead of insistent proclamations about price reductions. He opted for substance over style, which may have better served potential customers in the end. Yet that decision demonstrates the chasm between advertising innovations in the eighteenth century and innovations that became standard practices in later centuries.

December 4

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

dec-4-1241766-pennsylvania-gazette-supplement
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 4, 1766).

“THOMAS HEWES, UPHOLSTERER … Easy Chairs.”

I first began studying advertising in eighteenth-century America shortly after I finished my comprehensive exams in graduate school. During the very early stages of the project I discussed my work with a senior colleague at a reception held during a conference. “Don’t get too enamored of the advertisements with the pictures,” this professor counseled. “Those are certainly quaint, but make sure that you look at other advertisements as well.” In hindsight, I recognize both good and poor advice bound together in that conversation. The professor was certainly correct that the world of eighteenth-century advertising was much more extensive than the relatively few newspaper advertisements that included woodcuts. However, he dismissed those woodcuts too quickly when he implied that they were only of antiquarian, rather than scholarly, interest. Because I wanted to be a serious scholar and I wanted others to take my work seriously, I did not give woodcuts in newspaper advertisements as much attention as they merit.

In recent years, however, my interest in the production of advertising in early America has shifted to encompass visual culture and innovative graphic design much more extensively, partly as a result of my exposure to the conferences and other programs sponsored by the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society. I have come to realize that woodcuts, like the one depicting a wingback chair in upholsterer Thomas Hewes’s advertisement, have real significance beyond merely being “quaint.”

Hewes’ advertisement appeared in the two-page supplement that accompanied the December 4, 1766, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The contents of the supplement consisted exclusively of advertising, without other sorts of content. This more than doubled the space devoted to advertising for the December 4 edition. Amid all those advertisements, only six included any sort of visual image. The other five all featured a ship, the image produced by a woodcut that would have belonged to the printer. Most printers had a few stock images – ships, houses, slaves – that could be inserted interchangeably into advertisements. Other sorts of images, like Hewes’ chair, were commissioned by particular advertisers and used only in their advertisements. Compared to most other advertisers, Hewes invested additional creativity and expense in creating his advertisement.

The five advertisements with woodcuts of ships all promoted ships departing for Europe and encouraged colonists to book passage. That made Hewes’ advertisement unique in that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. It was the only advertisement for consumer goods that mobilized any sort of visual image to attract the attention of readers and make the advertisement more memorable. For anybody glancing through the six pages of the regular issue and its supplement, Hewes’ advertisement would have stood out. While the illustration may appear primitive to modern eyes (and perhaps even relatively crude to colonists familiar with engraved trade cards), that Hewes’ included an image at all amounted to an innovation intended to distinguish his business from others.

The Adverts 250 Project regularly documents the significance of the seemingly innumerable newspaper advertisements that lacked any sort of visual image. However, it’s also necessary to acknowledge the significance of those that di have some sort of “quaint” woodcut, an important aspect of the evolution of advertising in early America.