March 20

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

Mar 20 - 3:17:1768 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 17, 1768).

“ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted in it for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768. William Rind also published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768, though it was not the same newspaper despite bearing the same name. The printers competed for subscribers, readers, and advertisers as well as customers for job printing. Most eighteenth-century printers did not regularly list their rates for subscriptions or advertisements in their newspapers, but Purdie and Dixon did so in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette, as did Rind in the colophon of his Virginia Gazette.

Not surprisingly, the competitors set the same rates. An annual subscription cost 12 shillings and 6 pence. Advertisements were much more lucrative for printers. Purdie and Dixon specified that colonists could have “ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted … for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.” Rind named the same prices, though he also offered a further clarification: “long ones in Proportion.” Among eighteenth-century printers who did publish their advertising rates that was a standard practice. Purdie and Dixon most likely adopted the same practice even if they did not underscore it in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette. What qualified as an advertisement “of a moderate Length” likely depended on negotiations between printer and advertiser. Neither Purdie and Dixon nor Rind indicated whether they defined length by the number of words or the amount of space on the page or both. Although the two would have been roughly proportional, inserting woodcuts or deploying several lines of type set in larger font did occupy more space.

These rates reveal that advertising could generate significant revenues that contributed to making it possible for printers to publish their newspapers and disseminate news and other content, including editorial pieces like the tenth missive in the “LETTERS From a FARMER in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British colonies” that appeared in both Virginia Gazettes on March 17, 1768. In “Letter X,” John Dickinson warned about the progression of tyranny that colonists could expect if the current abuses by Parliament were not challenged but instead became precedent for future governance from the other side of the Atlantic.

At 12 pence per shilling, a subscription to either Virginia Gazette cost 150 pence total, just under 3 pence per issue. An advertisement, however, cost twelve times as much, three shillings, just for its first insertion. This model, advertising funding the distribution of other content, continued into the nineteenth century and beyond with the introduction of new media made possible by advancing technologies. Although we take this system for granted today and even lament the intrusion of advertising into practically every aspect of daily life, colonists depended on advertising for its role in delivering the news at a crucial point in American history. Advertising provided an important alternate revenue stream for printers, helping them to spread news and editorial content during the imperial crisis that eventually resulted in the American Revolution.

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