What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ADVERTISEMENTS taken in … Small HAND-BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.”
Advertising represented significant revenues for early American printers. For many, advertising, rather than subscriptions, determined the viability and profitability of their newspapers. Some printers included invitations to submit advertisements along with publication information in the colophons that appeared at the bottom of the final page of their newspapers. In the colophon for the Massachusetts Spy, for instance, Isaiah Thomas proclaimed, “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in.” Considering how much revenue advertisements generated, some printers devoted as much space (or more!) to paid notices in their newspapers as to other content, though others made efforts to balance news and advertising. For his part, Thomas did not allow advertising to crowd out local news for Boston, “AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE” from other cities, letters to the editor, and other content. In the January 16, 1772, edition, for instance, he filled one-third of the columns with advertising and the rest with news. He also inserted a note that “Advertisements omitted will be in our next,” alerting advertisers that their notices had not been overlooked but merely delayed.
At the same time, Thomas produced other forms of advertising, including handbills, and promoted such work as well as other job printing performed “on the most reasonable Terms.” Those services appeared in the colophon of every issue of the Massachusetts Spy in the early 1770s. The printer alerted prospective advertisers that he produced “Small HAND-BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.” Though relatively few of those handbills survive today, especially compared to newspapers (and the advertisements in them) preserved in their entire runs, they were part of a vibrant culture of advertising in the second half of the eighteenth century. As they traversed the streets of Boston and other cities and towns, colonizers glimpsed broadsides pasted to buildings and grasped handbills thrust at them as they passed. Merchants and shopkeepers gave out trade cards to promote their businesses and wrote accounts and receipts on billheads. Booksellers and auctioneers distributed catalogs. Advertisements were not the only kind of job printing undertaken by Thomas, but singling out handbills for special attention in the colophon of his newspaper suggests that he saw advertising as an especially lucrative endeavor.