February 16

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Providence Gazette (February 16, 1771).

“ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Week for Four Shillings.”

In the eighteenth century, some printers used the colophon, the portion of the newspaper devoted to publication information, as advertisements for their own goods and services.  John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, did so in 1770.  He listed his location as “PROVIDENCE, in New-England … at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeare’s Head … where all Manner of PRINTING-WORK is performed on reasonable Terms, with Fidelity and Expedition.”  Other printers hawked books, stationery, and other goods in their colophons.

Most printers did not list their advertising rates, but those who did placed that information in the colophon.  Carter updated his colophon with the first issue of the Providence Gazette published in 1771. He no longer promoted printing work but instead announced that “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful, and Ninepence for each Week after; longer Ones in Proportion.”  Carter adopted a pricing structure similar to that of other newspapers:  a flat fee for setting type and running an advertisement for a set number of weeks (usually three, but sometimes four) and additional fees for each subsequent insertion.  Longer advertisements cost proportionally more.  If the space an advertisement occupied in the Providence Gazette in those subsequent weeks was worth nine pence, that meant that Carter charged twenty-one pence for setting type.  The four shillings (forty-eight pence) for placing an advertisement amounted to twenty-seven pence for the three weeks it ran in the newspaper with the remainder for preparing the notice for publication.

The information about advertising in Carter’s colophon included one variation that did not appear in most others.  He specified that advertisements were to be “accompanied with the Pay.”  Eighteenth-century printers, like other purveyors of goods and services, frequently extended credit to their customers.  They also regularly published notices calling on subscribers, advertisers, and others to settle accounts, sometimes pleading and other times threatening legal action.  In the February 15, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, for instance, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle inserted a lengthy notice addressed to “those who neglect and are indebted for many Years Papers.”  The printers warned that those subscribers “may depend on being sued.”  When it came to advertisers, Carter apparently wanted to avoid finding himself in a similar position, insisting that advertisements must be “accompanied with the Pay.”  Considering that advertising constituted an important revenue stream for early American newspaper printers, this likely had beneficial effects on other aspects of the business Carter ran from his printing office.

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