May 30

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 27, 1773).

Thursday next will be published … PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”

Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, inserted a brief notice in the May 27, 1773, edition to advise the public that he would soon publish and distribute “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”  Those proposals, a description of the purpose, contents, and price of the magazine, likely appeared on a handbill or broadside, though the printer may have also devised a circular letter to send directly to likely subscribers.  Yet again, a newspaper notice provides evidence of other forms of advertising that circulated in early America in the absence of those materials surviving in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  Thomas eventually inserted the proposals in the Massachusetts Spy and other newspapers, providing a glimpse of the handbills or broadsides.  The Adverts 250 Project will examine those newspaper notices in the coming weeks and months.   Despite Thomas’s promotional efforts, he did not publish the first issue of the Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement until eight months later in January 1774.

At the time, readers had access to more than two dozen newspapers printed throughout the colonies, including five in Boston, but imported magazines from London.  As Frank Luther Mott explains in A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850, “At the time the first number of the Royal American was issued, there had been no magazine of any kind in the colonies for more than a year and a half, and no general magazine for more than four years.”[1]  According to the “Chronological List of Magazines” that Mott compiled, the Royal American Magazine was only the sixteenth magazine published in the colonies (and that included the Censor, a newspaper-magazine hybrid published in Boston for less than six months from late November 1771 through early May 1772).  Thomas later recollected that his magazine “had a considerable list of subscribers.”[2]  Even so, it lasted for only fifteen months, the last issue published in March 1775. Thomas did not publish the magazine the entire time.  He suspended it in the wake of disruption caused by the Boston Port Bill and later relinquished it to Joseph Greenleaf.  The publication did not continue after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.


[1] Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), 83.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 286.

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