What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“JOHN BOYD, Druggist, Has just imported, and now sells, at BALTIMORE TOWN.”
John Boyd placed an advertisement for “A Neat and general assortment of Drugs, and Medicines” in the June 2, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. Unlike many others who advertised consumer goods and services in the Journal, Boyd did not operate a business in Philadelphia. Instead, he sold his array of remedies “at BALTIMORE TOWN” in neighboring Maryland. Residents of Philadelphia were not the intended audience for Boyd’s advertisement, especially since several druggists and shopkeepers who stocked medicines among their general merchandise served that busy port city. Some of them, including Nathaniel and John Tweedy and John Sparhawk, advertised in the same issue that carried Boyd’s notice.
Instead, Boyd sought the patronage of other residents of “BALTIMORE TOWN” as well as colonists who lived in the hinterlands between Baltimore and Philadelphia. He depended on the wide distribution of the Pennsylvania Journal as a regional newspaper that served readers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and beyond. He expected that readers outside Philadelphia would at least skim the advertisements for local content in addition to reading news items that reported on events throughout the colonies, Europe, and the Atlantic world. Yet he also realized that other advertisers, especially direct competitors who specialized in medicines, often provided mail order services. Accordingly, he assured potential customers that “The Prices will be the same, or as low as in Philadelphia.” Henry Stuber, a druggist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, made the same promise in his own advertisement that ran once again in the supplement that accompanied the June 2 edition.
Boyd in Baltimore and Stuber in Lancaster vied for local and regional clients by advertising in a newspaper published in Philadelphia, seizing the best option available to them in the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet that would not be the case for much longer. Throughout the years of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution the number of newspapers printed in the colonies and the new nation fluctuated yet expanded over time, a trend that only intensified in the final decade of the eighteenth century as printers in an increasing number of cities and towns published local newspapers. After all, the fate of the republic, an experiment with an uncertain outcome, relied on educated and informed citizens. Both before and after the Revolution, the revenues from advertisements contributed to the publication and dissemination of the news, even though conceptions of what counted as a local newspaper for the purposes of advertising changed over time.