A tale of two tailors


Advertisements, dictionaries tell us, are paid communications promoting products or services in print media, radio or television, on billboards or social media, via the internet, and any and all other ways to reach an audience. To attract attention, they cajole, inform or annoy in ways that can border on the absurd or play off captivating news stories. 

Several of the Jewish settlers in 19th-century Providence were involved in the clothing trade. Since wealthier residents preferred shopping at Gladdings or Taylor, Symonds & Co., the Jewish merchants and tailors moved their businesses frequently and vied vigorously through advertisements for the trade of sailors along the waterfront, and of the less affluent. 

Two Jewish merchants were particularly savvy and flamboyant practitioners of the art of persuasion. Although limited to newsprint, they made the most of this medium and, in the process, overturned many of the prevailing norms of genteel advertising.

Newspapers at that time bore little resemblance to those of today. Most of Page 1 was given over not to news, but to advertisements. The ads were generally the size of business cards and contained two or three lines with the name of the tradesman, merchant or professional and the wares or services offered.

Imagine, then, the raised eyebrows when a double-sized, densely-worded notice appeared in the Providence Daily Journal on Aug. 18, 1843, touting the “extraordinary invention,” expert workmanship and ability of John Nathan, “from London, Tailor, Dyer, and Coat Cleaner” who could renew old clothes and make them as good as new. No clue was given as to the nature of this “extraordinary invention.”

The ad ran for several weeks and then disappeared, as did Nathan. When he returned, in an enlarged ad he offered for sale new ready-made clothing. His ads were no longer densely worded; he simply enumerated the prices and the large inventory of sartorial items he now stocked.

Perhaps Nathan had learned a thing or two from a competitor, Lewis Lewisson, who, in his oversized ads, replete with large print, indentations and capital letters, let the populace know that his “FAMOUS CLOTHING BAZAAR” had “$30,000 WORTH” of the finest and best-selected stock of clothing for men and boys.

In addition to the newspaper ads, the Clothing Bazaar was featured on the inside cover of the first issue of the Providence City Tax Book, in 1852, as a three-story building topped with pennants.

On Nov. 21, 1853, Lewisson placed this remarkable “Proclamation” in the Journal:

“Whereas I have been supported by extraordinary good luck, for which I am thankful to Almighty God, and the whole people who have backed me in the same, it behooves me to dispense some of my income to the Poor of Providence ....”

He continued by inviting all (“indiscriminate of Religions”) to come to his “PROSPEROUS BAZAAR” on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, to receive a substantial Thanksgiving dinner.  For those unable to come, he promised to deliver a dinner.

Immediately following this proclamation another appeared, this one by John Nathan. Nathan echoed the word in Lewisson’s opening statement and invited the poor to visit his “FAR FAMED CLOTHING STORE” during Thanksgiving Day for “A GOOD SUBSTANTIAL BARGAIN IN READY MADE CLOTHING” that would leave them with enough money to get a meal without resorting to charity. Those who could not afford even a bargain were told to come anyway and receive something useful for the winter.

He added: “I do not shave the public all year to make myself magnanimous on Thanksgiving.”

The dueling ads continued, and Lewisson proved more flamboyant and skilled in the use of hyperbole, but Nathan scored when he took advantage of the news of the day. 

The Crimean War, between Russia and the allied forces of France, England, Sardinia and Turkey, raged from 1853 to 1856. At one point, the strategic city of Sevastopol was under siege. News of the battle, which was on the minds of many, took weeks to arrive. Sevastopol fell on Sept. 11, 1855, but it was not reported in the Journal until Sept. 28. As late as Oct. 5, Nathan’s ad was headed “Sevastopol not taken but Howard Block is.” Nathan had recently returned from New York with new stock and opened a “spacious” store in a stylish location – the Howard Block.

The next day, Nathan changed the heading in his ad. “SEVASTOPOL IS TAKEN! But the excitement at Sevastopol is not as great as is offered in READY MADE CLOTHING” in his model clothing store.

Lewisson was eventually forced out of business by fierce competition from newer companies. After a 30-day final sale that lasted five months, he left Providence, but he returned 20 years later. He was no longer in the clothing trade but became, by all accounts, highly regarded and successful in another sort of business.

Of John Nathan, we only know that he was no longer listed in the Providence City Directory after 1858.

This account of the tailors’ ad war is based on articles by Beryl Segal in Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.

RIJHA, Foster