What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ADVERTISEMENTS not exceeding eight or ten Lines are inserted for Three Shillings.”
How much did advertising cost? How much did advertising cost compared to subscriptions? These are some of the most common questions I encounter when discussing eighteenth-century advertising at conferences and public presentations. The answer is complicated, in part because most eighteenth-century printers did not list advertising rates or subscription fees in their newspapers. A significant minority, however, did regularly publish that information in the colophon that ran at the bottom of the final page.
Such was the case with Samuel Hall and Ebenezer Hall, printers of the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1770s. Over the course of two lines, the colophon in their newspaper announced, “THIS GAZETTE may be had for Six Shillings and Eight Pence per Annum (exclusive of Postage) 3s. 4d. (or 4s. 6d. if sent by the Post) to be paid at Entrance. ADVERTISEMENTS not exceeding eight or ten Lines are inserted for Three Shillings.” The colophon revealed how much the Halls charged for subscriptions and advertising as well as other business practices.
Subscribers paid six shillings and eight pence per year, but that did not include postage for delivering the newspapers. The printers expected subscribers to pay half, three shillings and four pence, in advance. Like many other eighteenth-century entrepreneurs, the Halls extended credit to their customers. Newspaper subscribers were notorious for not paying for their subscriptions, as demonstrated in the frequent notices calling on subscribers to settle accounts placed in newspapers throughout the colonies, prompting the Halls to require half from the start. They asked for even more, four shillings and six pence, from subscribers who lived far enough away that they received their newspapers via the post, though the colophon does make clear if the additional shilling covered postage. The Halls may have charged a higher deposit because they considered it more difficult to collect from subscribers at a distance.
Short advertisements, those “not exceeding eight or ten Lines,” cost three shillings or nearly half what an annual subscription cost. Other printers specified that they adjusted advertising rates “in proportion” to length. The Halls likely did so as well, making the cost of an advertisement that extended twenty lines about the same as a subscription. They did not specify in the colophon that they required payment before running advertisements. Some printers made that their policy but apparently made exceptions. When they inserted notices calling on subscribers to send payment, they sometimes addressed advertisers. For many eighteenth-century printers, advertising generated significant revenue. Considering that a single advertisement could cost as much or more as an annual subscription in the Essex Gazette, the Halls had good reason to cultivate advertisers as well as subscribers.