GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
In this advertisement from the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette for April 10, 1769, Richard Smith sold “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” at his store on King Street. What are spermaceti candles? According to Emily Irwin, the materials to make spermaceti candles came from sperm whales. Those materials were supplied by the whaling industry. Spermaceti candles burned longer, cleaner, and brighter than other candles made from tallow (animal fat) or beeswax, making them a popular choice. Spermaceti candles were the height of the candle-making technology for Americans in the eightheenth and nineteenth centuries. Irwin states, “The spermaceti candle represents a changing society and an evolving culture; a culture that was constantly striving for a clean burning and more efficient means by which to light the darkness.”
Despite the high cost of these candles, Americans were willing to pay for them, but only the richest of Americans could afford to fully enjoy the benefits of spermaceti candles. These candles were made from the “head matter” which was an oily substance that came from sperm whales. This material was hard to acquire, especially compared to tallow and beeswax. Spermaceti candles were often made in port towns such as Providence or Boston.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Edes and Gill had too much content to fit all of it into the standard four-page edition of the Boston-Gazette on Monday, April 10, 1769. As the masthead proclaimed, they published “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestic.” Some of those “Advices” were news items and editorials. Others were paid notices that also delivered news, such as an advertisement offering a reward for capturing the perpetrator of a theft that recently occurred at John Carnes’s shop in Boston and another that advised landholders to pay taxes on their property in Berkshire County or risk having their land sold at public auction. Even advertisements for goods and services counted among “the freshest Advices” as they informed readers of upcoming concerts, ships seeking passengers and freight in advance of departing for London, and all sorts of fashionable textiles and housewares in stock in local shops.
The printers had so much content that many of the paid notices overflowed into a separate supplement devoted entirely to advertising. Richard Smith’s advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” and “an Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS” was one of two dozen that ran in the supplement. On the same day, the Boston Evening-Post also issued a two-page supplement, though advertising comprised only one of those pages. To the south, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury distributed its own two-page supplement filled with paid notices. Half a dozen other newspapers were also published throughout the colonies, from Massachusetts to South Carolina, on April 10, 1769. Each of them carried a significant amount of advertising, even if the printers did not have so many as to justify distributing a supplement. Green and Russell even squeezed a short advertisement into the bottom margin of the first page of the Massachusetts Gazette. Peter Crammer’s advertisement for “Choice Liver Oyl” ran as a single line across all three columns.
All of these examples demonstrate the popularity of advertising in eighteenth-century America. Printers certainly appreciated the revenues, squeezing as many advertisements as possible into each issue and distributing supplements when they did not have enough space. Many advertisers likely considered such marketing a necessary investment. Smith’s advertisement for “Sperma-Caeti CANDLES” ran between John Langdon’s advertisement for “Best Sperma Ceti Candles” and “Isaac White’s advertisement for “Dipp’d Tallow Candles.” With so many competitors advertising their wares in the public prints, Smith likely considered it imperative to do so as well or risk losing out on his share of the market.
 Emily Irwin, “The Spermaceti Candle and the American Whaling Industry,” Historia 21 (2012), 45.
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