What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ADVERTISEMENTS, of a moderate Length, are inserted the First Time, for 5s.”
How much did it cost to place an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper? That question does not always yield ready answers. Most printers did not regularly publish their advertising rates. Those that did publish them usually did so in one of two places: the plan in the first issue of a new publication and the colophon that ran at the bottom of the final page of each issue. Some printers commenced publication of their newspapers with a plan or overview of their purpose and the kinds of information they intended to publish as well as details that included the quality of the paper and type and subscription and advertising rates. Other printers treated the colophon as a place for recording more than just their names and place of publication. They used the colophon as a mechanism for marketing the various operations at the printing office. There they sometimes indicated subscription fees, advertising rates, or both.
Such was the case in the Maryland Gazette published by Anne Catharine Green and William Green in Annapolis in 1770. The colophon listed the costs of both subscribing and advertising. The Greens declared that “all Persons may be supplied with this GAZETTE at 12s. 6d. a Year.” In addition, “ADVERTISEMENTS, of a moderate Length, are inserted the First Time, for 5s. and 1s. for each Week’s Continuance. Long ones in Proportion to their Number of Lines.” The Greens followed standard practices, yet also introduced one modification. Most printers who published their advertising rates had both an initial fee and then an additional fee for “each Week’s Continuance.” However, for most printers that initial fee included publishing the advertisement for several weeks, usually three or four, before incurring additional costs. The Greens did not offer any sort of package deal that included multiple insertions. This had the benefit of lowering the initial cost, but may have prevented prospective advertisers from feeling as though they got a bargain on the second and third insertions. Still, the fee structure suggests that the Greens charged four shillings for setting type and another shilling for the space the advertisement occupied the first time. After that, they charged only a shilling for each additional insertion, the type having already been set. Like other printers, they increased the rates for lengthy advertisements that took up more space. Prices for advertisements much larger than a “square” were assessed “in Proportion to their Number of Lines” rather than by the number of words.
That the Greens published the price of an annual subscription, twelve shillings and six pence, allows for comparison of the relative costs of subscribing and advertising. At five shillings for the first insertion, an advertisement cost 40% of a subscription. Advertisements that ran for multiple weeks steadily gained on the price of subscriptions, only needing to run for nine weeks for the former to exceed the latter. The financial viability of many colonial newspapers often depended much more on their ability to attract advertisers rather than subscribers.