What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Printed and sold by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS, at the new Printing Office.”
In the middle of July 1770, Isaiah Thomas distributed a preliminary issue of the Massachusetts Spy to announce that he would commence publishing that new newspaper in two weeks. He sought subscribers and advertisers to make it a viable endeavor. Three weeks passed before the next issue appeared, but after that Thomas distributed new editions of the newspaper three times a week. Many factors could have accounted for the slight delay; attracting a sufficient number of subscribers may have been one of them. The Massachusetts Spy continued on its thrice weekly publication schedule for just three months before Thomas scaled it back to only twice a week for three months and finally to once a week, the same schedule as most newspapers published in colonial America.
Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several other printers and their newspapers for readers in Boston and its hinterlands, including Thomas Fleet and John Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post, Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s Boston-Gazette, John Green and Joseph Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. Each of those publications had served readers for many years, perhaps making it difficult for Thomas to convince subscribers and advertisers to take a chance on his new publication. Throughout the first couple of months, few advertisements ran in the pages of the Massachusetts Spy.
In October 1770, however, more began to appear, though still a small number compared to how many advertisements filled the pages of other newspapers printed in Boston. The October 13 edition, for instance, included four advertisements. Gillam Bass advised the public that his shop had been “broke open … by some evil minded person or persons” who had stolen several items earlier in the week. He offered a reward for information or the capture of the perpetrators. Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles once again inserted their advertisement for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD” written by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet. Another advertisement sought an apprentice “to a genteel business,” but did not provide much more information. Anyone wishing to know more needed to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office.” If Thomas had not placed this notice himself then he served as an information broker on behalf of the advertiser, not unlike newspaper printers throughout the colonies who frequently published advertisements that instructed interested parties to contact them to learn more. Thomas and his partner, Zechariah Fowle, certainly placed the final advertisement for a religious tract that they printed and sold. In addition to potentially yielding customers, this notice enlarged the advertising section of the Massachusetts Spy and may have made it seem more vibrant and robust to prospective advertisers contemplating whether placing a notice in that newspaper was a sound investment.
Thomas took advantage of his access to the press to run a newspaper advertisement for another branch of his printing business, a strategy frequently adopted by early American printers who published newspapers, sold books and pamphlets, did job printing, sold blanks, and pursued a variety of other related tasks in their printing offices.