October 30

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

Pennsylvania Packet (October 28, 1771).

“JAMES CUNNING, At the sign of the SPINNING-WHEEL.”

When John Dunlap launched the Pennsylvania Packet on October 28, 1771, the first edition featured an astounding number of advertisements, enough that he distributed a supplement containing some of the news and advertising that did not fit in the standard issue.  Still, he did not print all of the advertisements submitted to his printing office.  Dunlap included a note that “Some Advertisements … are deferred till next week, when they shall be carefully regarded.”  Most colonial newspapers did not benefit from such an abundance of advertising in their inaugural issues.  Advertisers tended to wait to assess the success and circulation of new newspapers before investing in advertising that might not be seen by many readers.  Dunlap may have attracted so many advertisers because he announced in the subscription proposals that “The first Number shall be given gratis.”  Many advertisers may have assumed that free newspapers would result in high demand, at least for that first issue, making their own advertisements sound investments.

James Cunning, a merchant who did business “At the sign of the SPINNING WHEEL, in Third-street,” was among the advertisers who placed notices in the first issue of the Pennsylvania Packet.  He adorned his advertisement with an image of a spinning wheel, replicating the sign that marked his location.  That image, however, was not unique to the Pennsylvania Packet.  It previously appeared in advertisements Cunning placed in the Pennsylvania Journal on October 10 and October 17.  Colonial printers tended to supply stock images of ships, houses, horses, enslaved people, and indentured servants to advertisers, but advertisers who wished to publish other kinds of images had to commission woodcuts that then belonged to them, not the printers.  Three advertisements in the inaugural issue of the Pennsylvania Packet included images of ships at sea, but Cunning’s was the only advertisement with a specialized image keyed to his particular business.  To make that happen, he had to retrieve his woodcut of the spinning wheel from the printing office operated by William Bradford and Thomas Bradford at the corner of Front and Market Streets and deliver it, along with copy for his advertisement, to Dunlap’s “NEWEST PRINTING-OFFICE” on Market Street.  Already in the first issue of the Pennsylvania Packet, Dunlap participated in a longstanding practice of providing stock images for advertisers while also incorporating more specialized woodcuts that advertisers submitted with their copy.

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