What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I hereby forewarn all Persons against trusting her on my Account.”
Newspapers printed in colonial America notably carried relatively little local news. As most were published once a week, printers realized that much of the local news of consequence spread via word of mouth between issues. Accordingly, they reserved space in their newspapers for printing news from other colonies, the Caribbean, Europe, and other places. This often involved reprinting items from other newspapers, organizing the contents such that news from the farthest away appeared first. Consider the July 29, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. The masthead proclaimed that it carried “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic.” It included news from London (reprinted from the London Gazette), followed by news from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Newport, and Providence. The final page, usually reserved for advertising, carried more news from Boston and Philadelphia as well as a brief update from South Carolina. The brigantine Grant had just sailed for London from Charleston, carrying “twenty bales of STAMPED PAPER, which was imported here in the memorable year 1765.”
Although printers and editors ran little local news in colonial newspapers, the advertisements submitted by other colonists did include some of the “freshest Advices” about events that occurred in their own communities. Legal notices, estate notices, and other announcements certainly carried news of interest. Other advertisements advised readers of significant interactions and changing relationships between members of the community. In his advertisement dated “Providence, July 29 1769,” Thomas Lindsey announced that Sarah, his wife, “has eloped from my Bed and Board, and otherwise conducted herself in a very unbecoming Manner.” That being the case, Lindsey warned that he would not pay any debts contracted by his wife. This advertisement informed the community of discord in the Lindsey household, which was news as much as gossip. It documented a wife resisting the authority of her husband and the consequences for doing so. The advertisement also delivered important information to shopkeepers, innkeepers, and others who might consider doing business with a woman who was so exasperated with her husband that she saw no alternative except to remove herself from his authority. Readers who knew more of the backstory than the advertisement revealed may have extended aid despite the husband’s indignant warning.
Which piece of news had greater relevance to readers of the Providence Gazette, a note about stamped paper being returned to England several years after the repeal of the Stamp Act or a notice about evolving personal and financial relationships in the Lindsey household contained in an advertisement? Each touched on aspects of colonial life and culture. Each delivered information that helped readers better understand the society in which they lived. For those who interacted with the Lindsey family, news of Sarah leaving Thomas was as momentous in their daily lives as learning about continued resistance to all sorts of new legislation from Parliament. Purchasing advertising space gave colonists other than printers and editors an opportunity to deliver and shape the news that appeared in the public prints.