What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY.”
Isaiah Thomas, now remembered as the renowned patriot printer who published The History of Printing in America in 1810 and founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, launched his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, on July 17, 1770. The first issue, distributed free, began with an advertisement from the printer himself, the “PROPOSALS” that frequently inaugurated eighteenth-century newspapers. The proposal included two parts, the “CONDITIONS” of publication and an address “TO THE PUBLIC” in which the printer outlined the purpose of the newspaper.
The first condition stated that the Massachusetts Spy “will be printed with a fair Type, upon good Paper manufactured in this Province.” From the start Thomas took a political position. The Townshend Acts imposed duties on imported paper and other goods, prompting a boycott among colonial merchants. Although those duties, except for the one on tea, had been repealed recently, the nonimportation agreement still remained in effect in Boston. Thomas made clear that his newspaper would encourage domestic manufactures, specifically “good Paper manufactured in this Province,” as an alternative to imported goods.
Unlike most newspapers that consisted of four pages created by printed two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half, the Massachusetts Spy originally consisted of only two pages per issue. However, as Thomas explained in the second condition, the “Publication will be punctually every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.” The Boston Chronicle published two issues per week, on Mondays and Thursdays, but it folded in June 1770. No newspaper in Boston published more than one issue a week at the time Thomas founded the Massachusetts Spy. With three issues per week, Thomas provided six pages of news and advertising compared to only four pages for other newspapers. Furthermore, he explained in the address that on two of those days “no News-Paper is published in this Town.” As a result, his subscribers “will always have the most material of the News, which may from Time to Time arrive from Europe and from other Parts of this Continent, on the Day of its Arrival, or the next Day following, (Sundays excepted).” This was a particular advantage to subscribers. Thomas proclaimed that they would receive news “sooner through this Channel than any other.” The frequency of publication more than made up for the smaller size of the Massachusetts Spy.
Yet Thomas already envisioned expanding the newspaper when circumstances demanded. In the fifth condition he pledged that it “shall be enlarged to double the Size of the first Number,” the two-page issue in which the “PROPOSALS” appeared, “as Occasion may require, without any additional Expence to Subscribers.” In other word, Thomas would issue supplements when breaking news or an abundance of advertisements made doing so necessary, a common practice among eighteenth-century printers. Any additional pages were presented to subscribers free of charge. Thomas also made promises concerning the balance of news and advertising. In the address he stated, “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness, it will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.” Thomas had no intention of allowing advertisements, often more lucrative for printers than subscriptions, crowd out the news, including “the freshest and choicest Intelligence from Europe, and the material Transactions of this Town and Province” as well as a “List of the Arrival and Departure of Ships and other Vessels” and a “List of Marriages and Deaths.” Thomas welcomed advertisements “at the most Reasonable Rates,” but had no plans for the Massachusetts Spy to fill its pages almost entirely with advertising.
Thomas anticipated publishing the second issue two weeks later on July 31 “if a sufficient Number of Subscribers appear by that Time.” It took an extra week for Thomas to issue “Number II” on August 7, but after that the Massachusetts Spy joined the ranks of the public prints in Boston. Thomas continued publication until April 1775. Shortly before the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, he fled to Worcester and took his press with him. As an influential patriot printer, he feared British authorities and sought the safety of the smaller town in the countryside. He revived the Massachusetts Spy in Worcester in May 1775, but the newspaper had its origins on July 17, 1770, in Boston. The “PROPOSALS” for the newspaper, an extended advertisement, inaugurated the first issue.