What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Just over six months after the Massachusetts Spy commenced publication in July 1770, printer Isaiah Thomas temporarily suspended the newspaper in early February 1771. Thomas warned both current and prospective subscribers of the hiatus in a series of notices in the Spy, pledging that he would relaunch the newspaper, with improvements, in March. He hoped that the plans he outlined would attract new subscribers.
During the time that Thomas suspended publication, he turned to other newspapers to promote the Spy and seek subscribers. On February 18, he placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. In each, he addressed “all LOVERS of NEWS, POLITICKS, TRUE LIBERTY, and the FREEDOM of the PRESS.” He also declared that the Spy was “open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None,” though Thomas became an increasingly vocal supporter of the patriot cause. Indeed, four years later he fled to the relative safety of Worcester and set up his press there because he feared retribution from British officials angered by coverage in his newspaper if he remained in Boston.
Rather than focus on politics in this advertisement, however, Thomas described the plan for publishing the improved Spy. He originally intended to publish it on Tuesdays, the day after the newspaper that carried his advertisement, but reported that he would instead publish it on Thursdays “at the Request of a great Number of the Subscribers.” In appearing to give the customers what they wanted, Thomas further enhanced the Spy by gaining “the Advantage of inserting what News may be brought by the Hartford-Post, who arrives on Wednesday Evenings.” Like other newspapers, the Spy featured extracts of letters and items reprinted directly from other newspapers.
Thomas also listed other details, including the size and appearance of the newspaper and subscription rates. The revitalized Spy “will be printed on Demy Paper, every Number to contain four Pages large Folio, and every Page four columns.” While a couple of newspapers published in other towns at that time featured four columns per page, none of those published in Boston did. In this manner, Thomas sought to distinguish his newspaper from the local competition. If printers mentioned subscriptions rates in print at all, they most often did so in the plan of publication. Thomas set the price at six shillings and eight pence per year, with half to be paid on delivery of the first issue and the other half paid at the end of the year. Like other printers, he extended credit to subscribers.
The enterprising printer also gave instructions for subscribing, inviting “All those who are kind enough to encourage this Undertaking … to give in their Names as soon as they conveniently can.” Thomas accepted subscriptions himself, but he also specified several agents in Boston. They included fellow booksellers and printers, though none of the printers of other newspapers published in Boston. He also had local agents in nearby Charlestown as well as the more distant Salem. Thomas would eventually collect the “Subscription Papers” from his various agents and collate the names into a single subscription list.
Thomas envisioned significant improvements to the Massachusetts Spy, but he needed the support of subscribers to put his plans into effect. He first outlined new aspects of his newspaper in the Spy before it temporarily halted publication, but then he turned to advertising in other newspapers to seek subscribers (and presumably advertisers) and generate interest as the public anticipated publication of the new Massachusetts Spy.