Respectfully Soliciting your Patronage: The Language of Legitimacy in Antebellum Advertising

Jennifer M. Black

          In January 1844, printers Ackerman & Miller placed an advertisement in the New York Tribune, soliciting orders from the public.  The Nassau Street firm addressed their audience formally—“To Merchants in want of signs for new firms, &c.”—and promised “superior” work, even offering to match competitors’ pricing while providing “as artistical” a product.  They implored the public to “call and ascertain our charges, before leaving your [sic] orders elsewhere,” and closed with “Yours respectfully, Ackerman & Miller.”  This self-conscious address to the public combined several elements that sought to alleviate public concerns about hucksters and frauds in New York, including a rhetoric that mimicked genteel forms of written address, and a shrewd promise to meet competitors’ pricing and quality in exchange for the consumer’s favor. 

            This paper examines newspaper advertisements to determine how business owners responded to a crisis in legitimacy in the antebellum period, when urban marketplaces lacked widespread regulation and illicit hucksters intermingled with legitimate entrepreneurs.  The “free-wheeling” marketplace of the antebellum city has been well-documented by historians such as Stephen Mihm, Wendy Woloson, and Robert J. Gamble, who point to the high presence of counterfeit goods and money, secondhand dealers in stolen merchandise, and warnings of confidence men waiting to swindle unsuspecting marks.  Amidst this unsavory landscape, some business owners in New York City employed the codes of genteel expression when inviting potential clients to call.  This form of relationship-building through print helped middle-class business owners encode their solicitations with civility to position themselves as worthy of the public’s patronage.  Genteel language also helped to validate such addresses in opposition to the many clandestine forms of commerce in the antebellum city.  Echoing the prescriptions for transparent behavior that appeared in contemporary etiquette manuals, these ads betray entrepreneurs’ anxieties about their own positions in the market economy, and suggest that language provided a mode of asserting one’s identity as a legitimate business owner.  This paper thus examines the ways that business owners sought to navigate the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate commerce by turning to advertising rhetoric as a self-conscious display of civility and character.