The Stamp Act and Advertisements: The Plan

The Stamp Act, that instrument of taxation without representation that invigorated protests among so many colonists, was officially repealed 250 years ago today on March 18, 1766. Today I will explore how the Stamp Act, one of the most important precursors to the American Revolution, both included and affected newspaper advertisements.

Royal assent for the Stamp Act had been given nearly a year earlier on March 22, 1765, and the measure went into effect on November 1, 1765. (If you’d like to see day-by-day coverage drawing from colonial newspapers printed in late 1765, check out the impressive Twitter project undertaken by Prof. Joseph M. Adelman’s American Revolution class at Framingham State University during the fall 2015 semester.) Colonists began protesting the Stamp Act almost as soon as they learned about it.

On February 21, 1766, Parliament passed a resolution to repeal the Stamp Act. The king gave royal assent nearly a month later. (During the week that the king assented to repealing the Stamp Act, several American newspapers reprinted items had that been published in London newspapers the previous December. A bit of time would pass before colonists learned that the Stamp Act was no more.) On the same day the king also gave royal assent to the Declaratory Act, a warning to the colonists that although the Stamp Act had been repealed Parliament possessed the same authority to oversee affairs in America as it had in Britain.

Advertisements were enumerated in three places in the Stamp Act. Let’s have a closer look at each of them.

I.  … And for and upon every paper, commonly called a pamphlet, and upon every news paper, containing publick news, intelligence, or occurrences, which shall be printed, dispersed, and made publick, within any of the said colonies and plantations, and for and upon such advertisements as are herein after mentioned, the respective duties following (that is to say) …

For every advertisement to be contained in any gazette, news paper, or other paper, or any pamphlet which shall be so printed, a duty of two shillings.

The Stamp Act placed a tax on each newspaper printed in the colonies, but that was not the total potential revenue garnered from newspapers. Many colonists would probably have considered that imposition enough; they certainly did not appreciate an additional duty on every individual advertisement. Depending on the publication, some issues included dozens of advertisements that filled entire columns or pages, sometimes as much as two of the four pages of a broadsheet folded in half to create a four-page newspaper.

While expensive for advertisers, this provision would have been especially devastating for printers. They were unlikely to absorb the costs themselves (see Article XXVIII below), but if they insisted that advertisers paid the duty in addition to the usual costs then they risked attracting far fewer advertisers. Colonial printers rarely made a profit off of newspaper subscriptions. The real money in printing a newspaper came from the advertising.

In addition, printers frequently inserted advertisements for their own wares and services in the newspapers they published. In addition to drumming up business, this sometimes helped them to fill a column or page. Having to pay a duty on their own advertisements, traditionally inserted gratis as a benefit of operating the press, further challenged printers’ business model.

X.  Provided always, That this act shall not extend to charge any proclamation, forms of prayer and thanksgiving, or any printed votes of any house of assembly in any of the said colonies and plantations, with any of the said duties on pamphlets or news papers; or to charge any books commonly used in any of the schools within the said colonies and plantations, or any books containing only matters of devotion or piety; or to charge any single advertisement printed by itself, or the daily accounts of goods imported and exported, so as such accounts or bills do contain no other matters than what have been usually comprized therein; any thing herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.

This portion of the Stamp Act provided exceptions for God and government: no duties for prayer books or announcements that a day of thanksgiving would be observed nor for official proclamations or reports on voting in colonial legislatures. Schoolbooks and customs information were also exempted.

This section also stated that no duty would be charged for “any single advertisement printed by itself.” This suggests that various advertising media – broadsides, handbills, trade cards, billheads, subscription notices – were exempt, provided that they did not carry other material. Newspaper advertising, however, comprised the vast majority of advertising in colonial America in the 1760s. Trade cards, for instance, gained in popularity after the Revolution, but they were not nearly as common in the colonies in the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century as they were in London. Very few advertisers who used newspapers to disseminate commercial notices also invested in alternate media, in part because doing so would have cost significantly more. Perhaps Parliament’s intention had been either generosity or softening the blow when it approved this provision; if so, it missed the mark.

XXVIII. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no officer appointed for distributing stamped vellum, parchment, or paper, in the said colonies or plantations, shall sell or deliver any stamped paper for printing any pamphlet, or any publick news, intelligence, or occurrences, to be contained in one sheet, or any lesser piece of paper, unless such person shall give security to the said officer, for the payment of the duties for the advertisements which shall be printed therein or thereupon.

This provision specified that printers could not even receive the paper necessary for continuing their usual business operations without first giving “security” that the duties on advertisements printed in newspapers would be turned over to stamp agents. In effect, this put printers in the position of collecting duties themselves, making them unwilling arms of Parliament in London. Certainly many colonial printers profited from serving as official printers for colonial assemblies and royally appointed governors, but in such positions they disseminated information. Requiring them to collect stamp duties from their customers would have significantly changed printers’ role in colonial society. The Stamp Act attempted to compel their assistance and cooperation in new ways.

Many colonists objected to the Stamp Act for a variety of reasons, but printers had perhaps more incentives than others to protest Parliament’s new means of raising revenue. The Stamp Act’s treatment of advertising has sometimes been overshadowed by attention to its many other provisions, but its effects on the ability of early Americans to market their goods and services would not have been insignificant.

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