What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THERE is now opened … an Intelligence Office.”
In the summer of 1768 B. Leigh announced that he had opened “an Intelligence Office” at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Rather than selling goods, Leigh traded in all sorts of information concerning local commerce. He offered to match “any Merchant, Masters of Vessels or others” with buyers for “any sort of Merchandize Goods, Vessels, Lands, Negroes or Servants.” Similarly, for those with “Vessels to Charter” or “Houses, Lands, Shops, Rooms or Lodgings” to rent, Leigh assisted in identifying potential tenants. He also introduced clients interested in borrowing and lending money. His services in that regard included drawing up agreements for both parties to sign. Although Leigh trucked in information, he assured prospective clients of his discretion when it came to borrowing and lending money. Finally, the “Intelligencer” provided employment services, introducing master artisans seeking assistance in their workshops to journeymen who needed jobs. Two shillings was the going rate for information at Leigh’s “Intelligence Office.”
Leigh traded many types of information that often appeared in advertisements. Colonists regularly advertised consumer goods, real estate, and servants and slaves for sale. They advertised vessels to charter and property to rent. Employment advertisements appeared frequently in the pages of colonial newspapers. Less often, colonists advertised that they sought to borrow or lend money, often doing so anonymously with instructions to “enquire of the printer.” Leigh demonstrated sound judgment in promising “the secret kept” when he facilitated such transactions.
Yet the “Intelligencer” did more than merely replicate the advertising pages of Boston’s newspapers. Advertisements of all sorts achieved their purpose only when the right audience read and acted on them. Leigh’s services left less to chance. He actively worked to match clients with particular needs with other clients who had complementary needs. In that regard, the “Intelligence Office” went a step beyond the printing office. Printers disseminated information widely. They also responded to direct inquiries that resulted from “enquire of the printer” advertisements. They did not, however, sift and collate the information that passed through their shops and flowed off their presses to target directly those most interested in specific opportunities offered in advertisements. Leigh offered an improvement over advertising, one that potentially left less to chance. Still, it depended on two parties with corresponding needs simultaneously seeking his services. Intelligence offices more efficiently managed the flow of information, but advertising made information more widely available. Both methods had advantages and shortcomings in the world of colonial commerce.