May 2

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

Postscript to the Censor (May 2, 1772).

“Just Arrived, The Cream of Goods.”

Gilbert DeBlois placed his advertisement for “The Cream of Goods” imported from England in several newspapers published in Boston in the spring of 1772, including the Censor.  Ezekiel Russell commenced publication of the Censor, more “a political magazine rather than a newspaper,” in November 1771.[1]  He eventually supplemented it with a half sheet Postscript that looked more like a newspaper.  Instead of carrying essays and editorials exclusively, it also featured news and advertising.  Those efforts to diversify the publication, however, did not broaden its appeal to readers in Boston.  As Isaiah Thomas, the ardent patriot who published the Massachusetts Spy and wrote The History of Printing in America (1810), noted, “the circulation of the paper was confined to a few of their own party,” Tories who sympathized with the British government.[2]  Given his politics, DeBlois numbered among that party.  He eventually left Boston as part of the British evacuation in 1776.  He was among the advertisers in the final issue of the Censordistributed by Russell.

Thomas made his contempt for the Censor clear, demeaning it for being “discontinued before the revolution of a year from its first publication.”  In a footnote, Thomas also provided details about a notorious contributor to the Censor.  “Dr. Benjamin Church, a reputed whig, who when the Revolutionary war commenced was appointed surgeon general of the American army, but was soon after arrested and confined, being detected in a traitorous correspondence with the British army in Boston, I have been informed by a very respectable person whom I have long known, was a writer for the Censor.”  Thomas did not reveal his source, but he did state that “[t]his person, then an apprentice to Russell, was employed to convey, in a secret manner, the doctor’s manuscripts to the press, and proof sheets from the press to the doctor.”  Thomas asserted that Church engaged in skullduggery long before his infamous letter to General Thomas Gage was intercepted and decoded in October 1775.  Some historians have suggested that Church’s case was more nuanced than Thomas allowed, as did Church at the time.  Thomas apparently had little use for Church’s rationalizations that he deliberately sent misinformation to the British to ward off attacks against patriots who lacked ammunition, just as he had little use for the Censor.  For a few months, the Postscript to the Censor increased the number of publications that disseminated advertising in Boston, but Russell did not attract enough subscribers or advertisers to continue producing the weekly political magazine and its supplement.

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[1] Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society, 1947), 275.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 285.

January 6

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

Newport Mercury (January 6, 1772).

“Subscriptions are taken in by the Priner hereof, and a Number of Gentlemen in different Parts of the Country.”

In December 1771 and continuing into 1772, Solomon Southwick, printer of the Newport Mercury, ran subscription notices for “Col. Church’s HISTORY OF K. Philip’s Indian WAR, Which began in the Month of June, 1675.”  The project did not originate with Southwick; instead, he indicated “A Number of Gentlemen [were] desirous of having Reprinted” an account by Benjamin Church previously published in Boston in 1716.  Neither Southwick nor the “Number of Gentlemen” assumed the risk for publishing this new edition without first gauging broader interest in the book.

Such was the purpose of a subscription notice.  Subscribers reserved copies in advance, giving printers and publishers an idea of how many copies to print.  If they did not acquire a sufficient number of subscribers to make a project viable, they could abandon it rather than lose money on the venture.  In some cases, printers and publishers required subscribers to make payments in advance to help defray the costs of production, but in this instance Southwick specified that subscribers would pay three shilling “on Delivery of the Books.”  To entice prospective subscribers, especially booksellers and other retailers who might purchase multiple copies to sell, Southwick stated, “Those who subscribe for Six Books, to have a Seventh Gratis.”

Southwick accepted subscriptions, but he also relied on a network of associates to assist in the endeavor.  He informed readers that “a Number of Gentlemen in different Parts of the Country, to whom Subscription Papers have been sent,” also accepted orders for the book.  Those subscription papers included the proposal and conditions for subscribing as well as space for subscribers to sign their names and indicate how many copies they wanted.  Subsequent subscribers could peruse the list to see the company they kept, a factor that may have helped convince some potential subscribers that they indeed desired a copy … or at least desired seeing their names listed among those who supported the project.

Not all subscription proposals that ran in early American newspapers generated enough interest to proceed, but in this case Southwick garnered sufficient support to reprint The Entertaining History of King Philip’s WarThis edition included portraits of Benjamin Church and King Philip (Metacom, a Wampanoag leader) engraved by Paul Revere.  Southwick did not mention the images that would accompany the book as a means of promoting interest in the subscription notice.  Other subscription notices highlighted images, but perhaps Southwick had not yet made arrangements for that particular aspect of the publication.  Even without promising portraits of Church and Metacom, the subscription notices helped generate interest in the new edition.

March 17

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

Mar 17 - 3:17:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (March 17, 1766).

“A Compleat Assortment of Druggs and Medicines; … a fine Assortment of Surgeon’s Instruments.”

Benjamin Church operated a shop that likely attracted many different kinds of customers.

Anderson’s Pills, Bateman’s Drops, Stoughton’s Bitters, and Turlington’s Balsam were all familiar patent medicines that colonists would have purchased both with or without consulting a physician. In some ways, they were the over the counter medications of their day. The first half of Church’s advertisement lists a “Compleat Assortment of Druggs and Medicines” and ingredients that customers from a variety of backgrounds would have purchased.

The second half, on the other hand, lists equipment, “a fine Assortment of Surgeon’s Instruments,” likely intended for specific occupational groups that practiced one form of medicine or another. Everyday consumers may have had some of these supplies in their homes, just as modern American households possess basic first aid materials, but “Midwifry Instruments” and “Surgeon’s Knives” were likely purchased almost exclusively by medical practitioners.

I’m curious to know which volumes were included among the “good Collection of modern Medical Authors.” Did they include any works of general reference? Who would have purchased them?

Overall, this advertisement offers an interesting glimpse of medicine in colonial America, but it also demonstrates how an eighteenth-century business operated. Once upon a time I worked for an independently owned retail pharmacy and home health care supply store. Although the two portions of the business shared a location, most employees were specifically affiliated with either one or the other. Pharmacy staff and home health care staff had distinct areas of expertise and experience and consulted with customers accordingly. In contrast, it is likely that Benjamin Church worked on both sides of the business at his shop in colonial Boston.