Newspaper ads from occupied New York illumine Revolutionary War loyalties
History is full of people, big and small, who balanced precariously on the fence of divided loyalty. Wartime military occupation by a foreign power, the fate of New York City during the Revolution, accelerates this agile pastime, and a modest silversmith named Charles Oliver Bruff unwittingly recorded his story for posterity.
Bruff first addressed his New York newspaper advertisements to the pocketbooks of zealous gentlemen patriots, offering to help defend their “Liberties” with Bruff-made swords, properly patriotically embellished. But when Sir William Howe (p. 24) led his occupying troops into the city in 1776, Bruff reversed course with scarcely a dent in his profit margin.
No more patriots, but “gentlemen of the navy and army” were bid to inspect his wares for scabbard and uniform, now royally decorated. A stock of “His Majesty’s likeness” moved briskly.
The military sports spent freely, and sparked the Loyalist social whirl with their expensively-bedecked presence. Bruff’s goodly share of this new prosperity is evidenced by his turn to costlier illustrated ads and the necessity to “employ jewellers, silversmiths, chape forger and filers.”
He had no intention of braving the rebels’ vindictiveness, however, when, in 1782, rumor announced the British evacuation. So appears a notice of public auction, “for payment of a mortgage, including interest and an arrear of rent,” and Charles was off to safer pastures. We last see him in 1785 back in harness, but in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Always the optimist, he even branched out into real estate.
Bruff did not represent the loyalty of all his craftsman colleagues. A great many fled New York rather than cater to the British. But some like Bruff stayed, out of the profit motive or Loyalist convictions.
One rabid Loyalist spiced his rebel-baiting advertisements with things like “Ye Blue-skins! . . . ye cursed varlets! Who can view the consequences of your baneful politicks, and not despise and detest you?” Another offered “Counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream” for those journeying to other colonies.
Most of the collaborators were as sharp at gauging shifts in public opinion as they were at business practice. At the end of the occupation they wisely joined Bruff in flight, to Canada or England, selling out at bargain rates.
The advertisements here were collected by Rita S. Gottesman of Woodmere, Long Island. Volume II of her work on Revolutionary era advertising, The Arts and Crafts in New York , has just been published by the New-York Historical Society.