What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The trifling expence of a News Paper.”
Colonists did not have to subscribe to newspapers to gain access to their contents. Some subscribers passed along newspapers to friends and neighbors. A single newspaper could change hands several times. Proprietors of coffeehouses often subscribed to a variety of newspapers that they made available to their patrons, just one of the many amenities intended to make their establishments more cosmopolitan and attractive to customers. Colonists sometimes read aloud from newspapers in taverns, sharing news and editorials with larger audiences than read the articles themselves. Colonists did not need to subscribe in order to read or hear about the news. They could gain access to newspapers in public venues … or they could steal them.
The theft of newspapers was a sufficiently chronic problem that Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, inserted a notice in the March 30, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. The Fowles excoriated the “mean, lowliv’d Fellows, who have not Souls large enough to be at the trifling expence of a News Paper, yet are continually stealing their Neighbours, and others.” The Fowles did not deliver the New-Hampshire Gazettedirectly to subscribers. Instead, they dispatched copies from their printing office in Portsmouth to taverns “in the several Country Towns” with the intention that subscribers would pick them up or arrange for delivery by a local carrier. Too many “lowliv’d Fellows,” however, interfered with the system by picking up newspapers that belonged to others and “never deliver[ing them] to the proper Owners.”
The Fowles were concerned about subscribers not receiving their newspapers, but they were just as worried about the impact this “vile and scandalous Practice” would have on their business. Customers who regularly did not receive their newspapers were likely to discontinue their subscriptions. Theft endangered another important revenue stream. The Fowles lamented that the missing newspapers were “often a Damage on Account of Advertisements,” a twofold problem. First, advertising represented significant revenue that made it possible to disseminate the news. If prospective advertisers suspected that their advertisements did not reach the intended audiences then they might refrain from placing them. Second, many advertisements, especially notices about public meetings, estate notices, and legal notices, delivered news that supplemented the articles, editorials, and letters that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper. Advertisements underwrote the newspaper business while also informing readers of matters of public interest.
The situation reached a point that the Fowles called on their “good Customers” to inform them “of those Fellows Names” who had “abused both the Customers & Printers in this Way for Years past.” The Fowles planned to publish a list of the offenders, a public shaming that included descriptions of “their proper Character,” as well as prosecute them “as the Law directs for stopping Letters, News Papers.” Newspaper advertisements frequently reported the theft of consumer goods in eighteenth-century America, but this notice indicates that “lowliv’d Fellows” also stole newspapers and, by extension, access to information.