What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“John Prince HAS a Quantity of the best Isle of May SALT.”
The number of advertisements and the amount of space devoted to advertising varied significantly from newspaper to newspaper in colonial America. Some newspapers operated as delivery mechanisms for advertising, often giving as much or more space to paid notices than to news items, editorials, and other content. Other newspapers featured far less advertising on their pages.
Consider the Essex Gazette, published by Samuel Hall in Salem, Massachusetts. The July 18, 1769, edition included only four advertisements. Three ran at the bottom of the final column on the last page. John Prince hawked salt and wine, David Britton announced the sale of the late John Dampney’s real estate, and John Simnet promoted himself as a watchmaker of note. The fourth advertisement, a runaway notice concerning “an indented servant Lad, named Robert Kilby,” appeared near the bottom of the last column on the previous page, sandwiched between the shipping news from the customs house for the port of Salem and Marblehead and the shipping news from the customs house in Boston. Unlike the advertisements that filled the pages of many other newspapers, these had the appearance of filler that occupied the space necessary to complete the issue. In total, they accounted for less than a column of that issue.
Hall certainly did not operate the Essex Gazette on revenue generated from advertising, though many other colonial printers found selling advertising space more lucrative than selling subscriptions. In addition, Hall did not use one common method of cultivating advertising for his newspaper. Other printers concluded each issue with a call for advertisements (as well as subscriptions and news items) in the colophon. However, the colophon for the Essex Gazette failed to invite colonists to submit advertisements for the newspaper; instead, it focused on selling subscriptions, making clear that subscribers were expected to pay half in advance.
The masthead for the Essex Gazette proclaimed that it contained “the freshest Advices, both foreign and domestic.” Many other newspapers invoked the same claim in their own mastheads. For some, those “Advices” included advertisements. Legal notices updated readers on local events. Advertisements for consumer goods and services were indicators of both commerce and changing fashions. Notices about wives who “eloped” from their husbands told of marital strife among friends and neighbors. Advertisements about runaway servants or enslaved people who escaped bondage put the community on alert and drafted readers into providing surveillance on behalf of the advertiser. The Essex Gazette, however, featured far fewer advertisements. Instead of having some of the news filtered through the notices placed by fellow colonists, readers of the Essex Gazette encountered “Advices” selected almost exclusively by the editor.