What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“To be Sold on the cheapest Terms.”
When John Dunlap commenced publication of the Pennsylvania Packet in the fall of 1771, he quickly gained advertisers. From the very first issue, he distributed two-page supplements because the standard four-page issue could not contain all of the notices submitted to his printing office. Many merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Packet replicated a style more common in newspapers published in Boston and New York rather than those that appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal. A substantial number of advertisements in Dunlap’s newspaper featured extensive lists, naming dozens or even hundreds of items and occupying a significant amount of space. Perpendicular lines ran down the center of each, creating two columns within those advertisements. Rather than dense paragraphs of text, one or two items ran on each line, making it easier for readers to navigate the contents. Many of these catalogs of merchandise extended half a column or more. Philip Benezet’s advertisement filled an entire column.
Why did notices with this particular format appear in great numbers in the Pennsylvania Packet in the fall of 1771 but not in other newspapers published in Philadelphia? Did price play a role? Dunlap included the costs for subscriptions and advertising in the proposals he distributed prior to launching his newspaper. “The Price to Subscribers will be Ten Shillings per year,” he stated. In addition, “Advertisements, of a moderate length, will be inserted at Three Shillings each for one week, and One Shilling for each continuance.” Benezet’s advertisement certainly was not “a moderate length.” In such instances, Dunlap asserted that he published “those of greater length at such proportionable prices as may be reasonable.” David Hall and William Sellers did not include the price for subscriptions or advertisements in the colophon for the Pennsylvania Gazette, but William Bradford and Thomas Bradford indicated that “Persons may be supplied with” the Pennsylvania Packet “at Ten Shillings a Year.” William Goddard also charged ten shilling for an annual subscription to the Pennsylvania Chronicle. None of the printers, however, included prices for advertising in the colophons of their newspapers.
Dunlap set the same rate for subscriptions as his competitors, but did he attempt to undercut them when it came to advertising? If so, was that strategy only temporary, intended to come to an end once he felt his newspaper had been firmly established? His proposals included other savvy marketing strategies. He listed local agents in more than a dozen towns, from Boston in New England to Charleston in South Carolina, demonstrating that he planned for wide dissemination of the Pennsylvania Packet. He also distributed the first issue “gratis” in hopes of cultivating interest and leveraging commitments from prospective subscribers. Dunlap may or may not have charged lower rates for advertising as a means of jumpstarting his newspaper, but doing so was certainly within the realm of possibility in Philadelphia’s competitive media market.