October 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 13, 1770).

“Printed and sold by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS, at the new Printing Office.”

In the middle of July 1770, Isaiah Thomas distributed a preliminary issue of the Massachusetts Spy to announce that he would commence publishing that new newspaper in two weeks.  He sought subscribers and advertisers to make it a viable endeavor.  Three weeks passed before the next issue appeared, but after that Thomas distributed new editions of the newspaper three times a week.  Many factors could have accounted for the slight delay; attracting a sufficient number of subscribers may have been one of them.  The Massachusetts Spy continued on its thrice weekly publication schedule for just three months before Thomas scaled it back to only twice a week for three months and finally to once a week, the same schedule as most newspapers published in colonial America.

Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several other printers and their newspapers for readers in Boston and its hinterlands, including Thomas Fleet and John Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post, Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s Boston-Gazette, John Green and Joseph Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Each of those publications had served readers for many years, perhaps making it difficult for Thomas to convince subscribers and advertisers to take a chance on his new publication.  Throughout the first couple of months, few advertisements ran in the pages of the Massachusetts Spy.

In October 1770, however, more began to appear, though still a small number compared to how many advertisements filled the pages of other newspapers printed in Boston.  The October 13 edition, for instance, included four advertisements.  Gillam Bass advised the public that his shop had been “broke open … by some evil minded person or persons” who had stolen several items earlier in the week.  He offered a reward for information or the capture of the perpetrators.  Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles once again inserted their advertisement for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD” written by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet.  Another advertisement sought an apprentice “to a genteel business,” but did not provide much more information.  Anyone wishing to know more needed to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office.”  If Thomas had not placed this notice himself then he served as an information broker on behalf of the advertiser, not unlike newspaper printers throughout the colonies who frequently published advertisements that instructed interested parties to contact them to learn more.  Thomas and his partner, Zechariah Fowle, certainly placed the final advertisement for a religious tract that they printed and sold.  In addition to potentially yielding customers, this notice enlarged the advertising section of the Massachusetts Spy and may have made it seem more vibrant and robust to prospective advertisers contemplating whether placing a notice in that newspaper was a sound investment.

Thomas took advantage of his access to the press to run a newspaper advertisement for another branch of his printing business, a strategy frequently adopted by early American printers who published newspapers, sold books and pamphlets, did job printing, sold blanks, and pursued a variety of other related tasks in their printing offices.

March 23

GUEST CURATOR: Zachary Dubreuil

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

Boston Chronicle (March 23, 1769).

“JUST PRINTED … PSALMS of DAVID.”

Religion played an important role in the colonies. This advertisement attempted to sell a book, “PSALMS of DAVID … By the Rev. Dr. WATTS.” Watts (1674-1748) was an English educator who later became a pastor. He wrote a series of essays and poetry on theological topics. According to the Poetry Foundation, “Watts published four volumes of poetry: Horae Lyricae; Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707); Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715); and The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).” In addition, “several of his Psalms are among the best-known poems in the English-speaking world. ‘Joy to the World’, for example, is Watts’s rendering of the second part of Psalm 98 in common meter.” Watts’s work is still being used today, like it was during colonial times. This advertisement for a religious book shows us how much many colonists valued religion.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

John Mein’s advertisement for Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament was one of four notices that he inserted in the March 23, 1769, edition of the Boston Chronicle, the newspaper that Mein published with partner John Fleeming. The others included an advertisement for the second edition of Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack, one for Mein and Fleeming’s Register for New-England and Nova-Scotia, and one in which Mein offered to purchase entire libraries or exchange books. These four advertisements comprised nearly two of the three columns of the final page of the issue.

Guest curator Luke DiCicco and I recently examined the advertisements for the Boston Almanack and the Register. When we published short summaries on Twitter, historian J. L. Bell questioned the number of advertisements placed by Mein and the amount of space that the printer occupied in his own publication. Did the Boston Chronicle lack other advertisers? Or did something else explain the disproportionate advertising related to Mein’s own ventures? After all, other printers regularly placed notices in their own newspapers, but not usually to the same extent.

Three factors likely played a role in the overabundance of advertising by the printer. The Boston Chronicle competed with several other newspapers. It had commenced publication less than a year and a half earlier, while the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Boston Weekly News-Letter had been around for years or even decades. From its inception, the Chronicle had fewer advertisements than any of the other newspapers printed in Boston. It took time to build a clientele of readers, subscribers, and advertisers. In 1769, many prospective advertisers likely considered placing their advertisements in other newspapers a better investment. Part of that may have been due to the second factor, Mein’s vocal Tory sentiments. The advertisement for the Register, especially the inclusion of “BRITISH LISTS,” celebrated the colonies’ connection to Britain at a time when many colonists engaged in resistance to abuses by Parliament, including the Townshend Acts. Some prospective advertisers may have been hesitant to hawk their wares in the Chronicle due to the political sympathies expressed by the printers, especially Mein. This hypothesis requires further research. Finally, if Mein still had surplus copies of the Boston Almanack and the Register twelve weeks into 1769 then he desperately needed to sell them. That alone may have justified giving so much space to the advertisements, especially since they promoted reference information good throughout the year, such as lists of colonial officials and the correct dates when the courts would be in session, rather than the astronomical calculations.

Mein’s advertisement for Watts’s Psalms of David was just one several that called attention to his various ventures. As printer of the Boston Chronicle, he exercised his prerogative over the content, filling much of the final page with notices related to his “LONDON BOOK-STORE” on King Street.

February 8

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

Georgia Gazette (February 8, 1769).

“WRITING PAPER of different sorts to be sold at the Printing-Office for cash.”

James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, peppered the final page of the February 8, 1769, edition with his own advertisements. He inserted three brief advertisements, each of them extending only two or three lines. Two of them offered goods for sale: “WRITING PAPER of different sorts to be sold at the Printing-Office for cash” and “TOBLER’s ALMANACKS, for 1769, To be sold at Messrs. Clay and Habersham’s Store, and at the Printing-Office.” The other announced an opportunity for a young man: “WANTED, An honest, sober, and industrious LAD, as an APPRENTICE to the PRINTING BUSINESS. Such a one will meet with good encouragement by applying to the printer of this paper.” In addition, the colophon at the bottom of the page advertised services that Johnston provided at his printing office: “Advertisements, Letters of Intelligence, and Subscriptions for this Paper, are taken in.—Hand-Bills, Advertisements, &c. printed at the shortest Notice.” Like other colonial printers, Johnston took advantage of his access to the press to market his own goods and services as well as post announcements intended to advance his own business interests.

In placing advertisements in his own newspaper, Johnston also testified to his confidence in their effectiveness. He implicitly suggested that he expected to sell almanacs and writing paper as a result of publishing short notices in the Georgia Gazette. Similarly, he expected that inserting an advertisement for an apprentice would yield more and better candidates than relying on word-of-mouth appeals via his friends, neighbors, and associates. To underscore the point that his notices were more than just filler, Johnston distributed the three advertisements to different locations on the final page of the February 8 issue. One appeared one-third of the way down the first column and another two-thirds of the way down. The last appeared near the bottom of the second column. By interspersing them among other advertisements rather than grouping them together at the end of the last column, the savvy printer sought to reduce any impression that his notices primarily served as filler. Instead, he indicated that he had faith in this method of circulating information. Prospective advertisers should exhibit the same confidence when they chose to place notices of their own.