May 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 13, 1773).

“Hand and Shop BILLS.”

At the bottom of the final page of each issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the colophon informed readers that they could purchase subscriptions from Isaiah Thomas at his printing office in Boston or from local agents in several other towns in the colony.  In addition, the colophon stated, “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in,” “PRINTING in its various Branches, performed in a neat Manner,” and “HAND BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.”  Thomas aimed to generate revenue from both notices in the newspaper and advertisements printed to distribute separately.

In the spring of 1773, the printer enhanced his efforts to encourage colonizers to purchase advertising.  He commenced with a newspaper notice that appeared as the first item at the top of the first column on the first page of the April 16 edition.  Thomas advised that “THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”  Furthermore, “Advertisements (sent in season) are inserted in a neat and conspicuous manner on the most reasonable terms.”  The remainder of the notice solicited subscriptions, though the printer’s comment that the newspaper “has met with very great encouragement from the public” also assured advertisers of its “extensive circulation” that made advertising a good investment.

Three weeks later, Thomas inserted another advertisement about advertising, this time for “Hand and Shop BILLS.”  Printers occasionally hawked handbills, as Thomas did in the colophon, but rarely did they advertiser shop bills.  Those billheads, the precursors to modern letterheads, included the name and location of the merchant, shopkeeper, or artisan.  They often featured a visual image or a brief advertisement describing the goods and services available at the shop or both.  Most of the sheet remained blank, leaving space to write in a list of purchases.  Billheads simultaneously served as both advertisements and receipts.

Thomas apparently sought to increase the amount of advertising produced at his shop.  He declared that he “furnished himself with an elegant assortment of LARGE, and other TYPES, for the purpose of printing in the best manner, SHOP and other BILLS.”  He acknowledged that the type he used for printing the newspapers was not always the best choice for freestanding advertisements like broadsides, handbills, and billheads.  Instead, Thomas acquired the necessary equipment for crafting the most effective advertisements.

He also gave his notice about “Hand and Shop BILLs” a privileged spot the first time it appeared, placing it after news from Boston dated May 5 and before news from Boston dated May 6.  Even readers who only skimmed or completely skipped over advertisements were likely to see it there.  His previous notice about advertising in the Massachusetts Spyran as the final item in the Postscript, the only advertisement in that supplement, reinforcing the printer’s efforts to market advertising.  As with other instances of advertising ephemera mentioned in newspaper notices, the “Hand and Shop BILLS” that Thomas promoted in the spring of 1773 testifies to a vibrant culture of advertising in early America, though most such items have not been collected and preserved in research libraries and historical societies.