GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“APPRENTICES, (Wanted for the PRINTING BUSINESS).”
On April 17, 1769, John Mein and John Fleeming, the printers of the Boston Chronicle, put this advertisement searching for three young apprentices in their own newspaper. The printers wanted apprentices between thirteen and sixteen years of age. Two would work in the “PRINTING BUSINESS” and one in “BOOK BINDING.” Young men usually started apprenticeships in their teenage years and they finished in their early twenties. Bookbinding apprenticeship were not easy, according to Ed Crews. “Mastering the trade required hard work, dexterity, attention to detail, and a willingness and ability to handle painstaking tasks. By the time they became journeymen, apprentices had learned dozens of skills, including folding pages, collating them, stitching, gluing, and techniques for decorating covers.” This shows how hard it was to be a skilled bookbinder. Most apprenticeships were strenuous and not easy, but being an apprentice to a bookbinder could open new opportunities when the apprenticeship ended. Crews says, “Bookbinders with high skills, working in the right shop, could expect satisfying jobs and pay.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Residents of Boston and its environs had access to several local newspapers in the late 1760s. The Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Boston Weekly News-Letter had all been published in one form or another for several years or even decades. In December 1767, John Mein and John Fleeming commenced publication of another newspaper, the Boston Chronicle, expanding the options for disseminating both news and advertising. According to Isaiah Thomas in his monumental History of Printing in America, the Boston Chronicle was “intended to imitate in its appearance the London Chronicle.” Like their competitors, Mein and Fleeming published one issue each week. Upon successfully concluding the first year of publication, the partners altered the size of the newspaper and began distributing new issues on both Mondays and Thursdays, making it the first newspaper published twice a week in New England.
In an overview of its contents, Thomas states that the Boston Chronicle “was well supplied with essays on various subjects judiciously selected from British authors, and it contained the celebrated letters of the Pennsylvania Farmer” by John Dickinson, a series reprinted in nearly every newspaper in the colonies in late 1767 and early 1768. Thomas also notes that the newspaper “grew daily into reputation, and had a handsome list of subscribers.” He did not, however, note how successfully Mein and Fleeming attracted advertisers for their newspaper.
Examining the pages of the Boston Chronicle reveals that no matter how “handsome” the list of subscribers, the newspaper did not publish as many advertisements as any of its local competitors, especially not in 1769. This may have been due in part to Mein’s outspoken political sympathies. “Before the close of the second year of publication,” Thomas reports, Mein “engaged in a political warfare with those who were in opposition to the measures of the British administration. In the Chronicle he abused numbers of the most respectable whigs in Boston; and he was charged with insulting the populace.” Perhaps some prospective advertisers hesitated to insert their notices in the Boston Chronicle for fear of being associated with Mein’s strident politics. Others may have made principled decisions not to advertise in the pages of his newspaper. Thomas declares that as the newspaper steadily lost its subscribers “it could neither be profitable to its publishers, nor answer the design of its supporters.” Again, he does not comment on the role of advertising, especially the revenues generated from paid notices, in the demise of the Boston Chronicle.
Not only did the Boston Chronicle carry fewer advertisements than its competitors, a greater proportion of those that appeared in its pages promoted Mein and Fleeming’s endeavors, including their advertisement for apprentices “Wanted for the PRINTING BUSINESS” that appeared immediately below an advertisement for a book Mein sold at the London Book-Store. Only eight advertisements ran in the April 17, 1769, edition of the Boston Chronicle, one quarter of them placed by the publishers. The advertisement for apprentices was not explicitly political, but the politics of the printers may have influenced how many other advertisements happened to appear on the same page.
 Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; 1874; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 264-265.