What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”
Many colonial printers promoted their newspapers in the colophon that appeared on the final page. Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, did so in one of the lengthier colophons that appeared in newspapers published in the 1770s. In addition to providing his name and the place of publication, he gave extensive directions to his printing office “At the South Corner of MARSHAL’S LANE, leading from the MILL-BRIDGE into UNION-STREET.” Thomas noted that “all Persons may be supplied with this Paper” and gave the price for an annual subscription. He also listed local agents in four towns – Bridgewater, Charlestown, Newburyport, and Salem – who accepted subscriptions on his behalf. In addition, Thomas solicited advertisements and job printing, including handbills and printed blanks. He informed prospective customers of “PRINTING in its various Branches, performed in a neat Manner, with the greatest Care and Dispatch, on the most reasonable Terms.”
Although printers regularly promoted various goods and services available in their printing offices, they did not often include their own newspapers among those advertisements (except to call on recalcitrant subscribers to make payments) nor did they insert notices to encourage the public to place advertisements. That made Thomas’s notice at the top of the first column on the first page of the April 16, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy rather unusual. The printer proclaimed, “THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.” Established July 17, 1770, the Massachusetts Spy was the newest of the five newspapers published in Boston at the time, but Thomas suggested that its circulation rivaled its competitors. Advertising in his newspaper, the printer asserted, drew the attention of readers and, in turn, that attention yielded results for the advertisers. In making his pitch, Thomas also stated that “Advertisements … are inserted in a neat and conspicuous manner on the most reasonable terms,” offering assurances about the effectiveness, quality, and price of advertising in his newspaper.
Thomas also sought new subscribers. After extolling advertisements, he addressed “Such gentlemen and ladies, in this Province as are desirous of taking in the SPY.” The printer characterized its contents as “the earliest and most important Foreign and Domestic Intelligence, with a number of ORIGINAL papers, on a variety of subjects.” To further entice prospective subscribers, he gave the price of an annual subscription and trumpeted that it “is cheaper than any public paper or other periodical publication whatever, of its bigness [or size], in the four quarters of the globe.” Accordingly, the Massachusetts Spy “has met with very great encouragement from the public,” a pronouncement intended to resonate with prospective advertisers as well as prospective subscribers. In a nota bene, Thomas offered to send the newspaper to “Gentlemen and ladies in any of the American colonies, who incline to subscribe,” another testament to the “extensive circulation” that he mentioned as a reason for placing advertisements.
At the bottom of the final page of each issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the colophon informed readers that Thomas accepted subscriptions at the printing office and briefly mentioned “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in.” Although advertisements accounted for significant revenue for colonial printers, Thomas and others rarely promoted advertising except in the colophons of their newspapers. In this instance, Thomas apparently recognized an opportunity to cultivate more advertising for his newspaper. In making his pitch to prospective advertisers, he emphasized price (“reasonable terms”) and, especially, effectiveness (displaying notices in a “conspicuous manner” and the “extensive circulation” of the newspaper). He coupled those appeals with his efforts to attract more subscribers, hoping to expand both means that the Massachusetts Spy generated revenue.