June 5

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

Jun 5 - 6:5:1769 New-York Chronicle
New-York Chronicle (June 5, 1769).

“Advertisements … are inserted for Five Shillings.”

Advertising represented an important revenue stream for eighteenth-century printers, prompting many to regularly solicit advertisements in the colophons of their newspapers. In 1769, for example, the colophon for the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy stated that James Parker printed it “at the NEW PRINTING-OFFICE … where Subscriptions, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper are taken in.” Similarly, William Goddard used the colophon of the Pennsylvania Chronicle to proclaim that “Subscriptions, (at TEN SHILLINGS per Annum) Advertisements, Articles and Letters of Intelligence are gratefully received for this Paper” at his printing office. While printers regularly encouraged colonists to submit advertisements, they much less frequently indicated how much it cost to advertise in their publications.

Those that did list their advertising rates most often did so in the colophon, again utilizing it for conducting business on behalf of the newspaper rather than merely listing the particulars about who published it. A systematic examination of the colophons of eighteenth-century newspapers would produce a much better accounting of eighteenth-century advertising rates than has yet been compiled by historians of early American print culture. Such a project would include the New-York Chronicle.

When Alexander Robertson and James Robertson launched this newspaper in May 1769, they included their advertising rates in the colophon: “Advertisements of no more Length than Breadth are inserted for Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after, and larger Advertisements in the same Proportion.” Their pricing schedule reflected common practices among printers who listed the fees for inserting notices in newspapers. Advertisers commonly purchased a “square” of advertising as the basic unit, paying an initial fee that covered both setting the type and running the advertisement for several weeks, usually three or four. Most printers also indicated additional costs for continuing an advertisement after its initial run, as well as proportional pricing for those that exceeded the standard square. In this case, the five shillings that the Robertsons charged to insert an advertisement for four weeks consisted of one shilling for setting the type and one shilling for each week it appeared in the New-York Chronicle. Each additional week cost one shilling. In this case, the colophon revealed valuable information about the business of printing in early America.

March 20

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

Mar 20 - 3:17:1768 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (March 17, 1768).

“ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted in it for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768. William Rind also published the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg in 1768, though it was not the same newspaper despite bearing the same name. The printers competed for subscribers, readers, and advertisers as well as customers for job printing. Most eighteenth-century printers did not regularly list their rates for subscriptions or advertisements in their newspapers, but Purdie and Dixon did so in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette, as did Rind in the colophon of his Virginia Gazette.

Not surprisingly, the competitors set the same rates. An annual subscription cost 12 shillings and 6 pence. Advertisements were much more lucrative for printers. Purdie and Dixon specified that colonists could have “ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted … for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.” Rind named the same prices, though he also offered a further clarification: “long ones in Proportion.” Among eighteenth-century printers who did publish their advertising rates that was a standard practice. Purdie and Dixon most likely adopted the same practice even if they did not underscore it in the colophon of their Virginia Gazette. What qualified as an advertisement “of a moderate Length” likely depended on negotiations between printer and advertiser. Neither Purdie and Dixon nor Rind indicated whether they defined length by the number of words or the amount of space on the page or both. Although the two would have been roughly proportional, inserting woodcuts or deploying several lines of type set in larger font did occupy more space.

These rates reveal that advertising could generate significant revenues that contributed to making it possible for printers to publish their newspapers and disseminate news and other content, including editorial pieces like the tenth missive in the “LETTERS From a FARMER in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British colonies” that appeared in both Virginia Gazettes on March 17, 1768. In “Letter X,” John Dickinson warned about the progression of tyranny that colonists could expect if the current abuses by Parliament were not challenged but instead became precedent for future governance from the other side of the Atlantic.

At 12 pence per shilling, a subscription to either Virginia Gazette cost 150 pence total, just under 3 pence per issue. An advertisement, however, cost twelve times as much, three shillings, just for its first insertion. This model, advertising funding the distribution of other content, continued into the nineteenth century and beyond with the introduction of new media made possible by advancing technologies. Although we take this system for granted today and even lament the intrusion of advertising into practically every aspect of daily life, colonists depended on advertising for its role in delivering the news at a crucial point in American history. Advertising provided an important alternate revenue stream for printers, helping them to spread news and editorial content during the imperial crisis that eventually resulted in the American Revolution.

February 8

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

Feb 8 - 2:8:1768 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (February 8, 1768).

“ADVERTISEMENTS, not exceeding Sixteen Lines, are inserted Three Weeks for Three Shillings.”

In addition to the masthead on the first page, most eighteenth-century newspapers also included a colophon that listed publication information on the final page. At the very least the colophon usually indicated the name of the printer and the place of publication, but many printers inserted much more extensive information in their colophons, often transforming them into advertisements for the goods and services they provided. For instance, in the colophon for the February 8, 1768, edition of the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy James Parker announced that he accepted “Subscriptions, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper” at his printing office on Beaver Street. On the same day, Peter Timothy similarly invited readers of the South Carolina Gazette to submit subscriptions and advertisements, but his colophon also stated that “all Kinds of useful Blanks sold, and all Sorts of Printing-Work is done with Accuracy and Dispatch” in his shop.

Like Parker and Timothy, many printers frequently solicited advertisements in their colophons. After all, advertising generated greater revenues than subscriptions. Far fewer printers, however, indicated how much they charged advertisers to have their notices inserted in the newspaper. In the colophon of the Newport Mercury Samuel Hall did publish such rates: “ADVERTISEMENTS, not exceeding Sixteen Lines, are inserted Three Weeks for Three Shillings, lawful Money, and Six Pence for each Week after.” This schedule indicates how much advertisers paid for both space in the newspaper and the time and labor involved in setting the type. Each advertisement required a minimum payment of three shillings (or thirty-six pence). Hall determined that the space taken up by an advertisement was worth six pence per week. Since the original order had to cover three weeks, that meant that eighteen pence went toward the space the advertisement occupied on the page. The remaining eighteen pence then covered the time and labor involved in setting the type. This sort of payment structure was common among printers who revealed advertising rates in their colophons. Once an advertiser made it worth their time to set the type (usually three weeks, but occasionally four), they continued to publish an advertisement for just the cost of the space. Running an advertisement for even a short time often exceeded the cost of a subscription to the newspaper, making paid notices lucrative for printers.