What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Enquire of the Printers.”
On May 22, 1769, readers of the Boston Evening-Post encountered an advertisement offering an enslaved youth for sale: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, brought up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of the Printers.” On the same day, a nearly identical advertisement ran in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette: “TO BE SOLD, A fine healthy Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Enquire of Edes and Gill.” The Massachusetts Gazette, published the same day, also carried that advertisement: “TO BE SOLD, A fine likely Negro Boy, 17 Years old, bro’t up to Kitchen Work, and is fit for Town or Country. Inquire of Green & Russell.”
Except for variations in the spelling of “brought” (or “bro’t”), the copy in all three notices was identical until the final sentence that advised interested parties to “Enquire of the Printers” for more information. These advertisements and many others like them made T. and J. Fleet, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell active participants in the slave trade. Printing advertisements for the purposes of buying and selling enslaved men, women and children or capturing those who escaped from bondage already made printers complicit in the perpetuation of slavery, but these “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements demonstrated even more active involvement as purveyors of people, not merely as conduits for disseminating information.
Compared to newspapers published in the Chesapeake and Lower South, far fewer advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children ran in newspapers in New England and the Middle Atlantic, but they were not absent. Printers in Boston devoted less space in their newspapers to these advertisements, but the frequency of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements suggests that the Fleets, Edes and Gill, and Green and Russell invested time in facilitating these transactions beyond what was required for receiving the copy and setting the type. In effect, they served as brokers, even if they never described or advertised their services in that manner.
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“John Taylor At his SHOP by the Draw-Bridge.”
I originally picked this advertisement from the Boston Evening-Post because John Taylor’s shop was in close proximity to a drawbridge that I researched for an entry last semester. Then this particular advertisement became more interesting when I found it in a second newspaper, the Boston-Gazette, printed on the same day by a rival publisher. As I did more research on the people and places in Boston, I learned about the printers of the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.
Printers have an interesting role in early American history, especially in colonial Boston. They were the ones who provided various types of entertainment and, more importantly, news and communication to the populace. Printers T. and J. Fleet at the Heart and Crown printed many items other than newspapers. They operated their shop on Cornhill Street, which was laid out in 1708 and ran from Water Street to Dock Square. (In 1789 it was renamed Washington Street.) Even from its earliest days Cornhill Street was full of intellectuals and publishers and printers. The Fleet family lived on Cornhill and ran their print shop beneath their residence.
Thomas and John Fleet were prominent printers during the 1760s. In addition to newspapers, they sold broadsides and other important printed items that spread news and information. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, their father started the newspaper that became the Boston Evening-Post, which they continued to print until 1776.
Benjamin Edes and John Gill printed the Boston-Gazette. These partners would over time get themselves in trouble with British authorities because of what they printed. J. L. Bell has written about many examples of the printers of the Boston-Gazette closely walking the line of legal and illegal; for an example, see “Henry Bass Spills the Beans on a Political Protest.” Edes and Gill had a large circulation and may have been the Boston Evening-Post’s biggest competition. One reason that they may have had such a large circulation and got in to trouble often was Benjamin Edes was a member of the Loyal Nine, which was a secret group of patriots, nine “young business men” who planned a protest of the Stamp Act in 1765.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Elizabeth brings a sense of excitement to the research she does for the Adverts 250 Project. I’m continuously impressed with the primary and secondary sources she consults and incorporates into her analysis of the advertisements she has selected. As we work through revising and refining her first drafts, often we determine that some material should be eliminated in the interest of producing a concise entry that addresses one major theme. I know from experience how difficult and disappointing it can be to jettison portions of my own research and writing when certain parts of it just don’t work out. Unfortunately, that’s one of the hard lessons that Elizabeth and the other guest curators learn as we work collaboratively through the writing, revision, and publication process.
I appreciate the way that Elizabeth has used today’s advertisement as a jumping off point for examining the printers who produced newspapers and the advertisements they contained. However, she contemplated an alternate analysis of John Taylor’s advertisement that appeared in the October 6, 1766, issue of the Boston Evening-Post. Elizabeth located the same advertisement in the Boston-Gazette, prompting her to think about how “marketing and exposure were key to drawing in consumers, even in colonial America.” This is the third week that Elizabeth has been a guest curator for the Adverts 250 Project. With that statement from her first draft, she demonstrated that she really understands some of the questions that I find most interesting about the ongoing project.
Since this is a collaborative effort, I picked up Elizabeth’s research by consulting the other two newspapers printed in Boston in 1766. John Taylor’s advertisement also appeared later in the week in the October 9, 1766, issue of the Massachusetts Gazette, furthering strengthening Elizabeth’s suspicion that Taylor was being savvy by marketing his wares in multiple newspapers, increasing his shop’s exposure to as many readers as possible. The October 6, 1766, issue of the Boston Post-Boy did not carry Taylor’s advertisement. That does not mean that he did not attempt to place it in that publication. News items and other advertisements may have squeezed out Taylor’s advertisement in that particular issue.
At the very least, Elizabeth and I have identified three newspapers that carried Taylor’s advertisement 250 years ago this week, demonstrating that the shopkeeper did calculate the benefits of increased exposure from multiple publications. As we saw in June, Jolley Allen pursued a similar strategy, placing the same advertisement in all four newspapers printed in Boston. Were these two advertisers outliers? Answering that question will require a lot more roll-up-the-sleeves research.
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
Print played a significant role in the coming of the American Revolution. Some scholars argue for the primacy of newspapers in facilitating debate, giving a voice to protest, and shaping public opinion. Other printed items, however, also played a role, including pamphlets, sermons, almanacs, and engraved images (the eighteenth-century counterpart to modern political cartoons). Many of the advertisements selected for inclusion here directly addressed the discontent over the Stamp Act, some of them by marketing tracts that defended the colonies against the abuses of Parliament.
Printers and booksellers simultaneously expressed political views and sought to earn a living by advertising and selling items related to the crisis while the Stamp Act was still in effect. That did not change when the Stamp Act was repealed, though the rhetoric may have shifted slightly. Rather than promote a work condemning an overzealous and overreaching Parliament, today’s advertisement announced the publication of a “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.” That hated piece of legislation was gone, but printers continued to express their political beliefs – and they seized new opportunities to turn a profit as well.
In this case, politics might have slightly edged out profit. Three printing firms that otherwise would have been competitors joined together to advertise and sell the “Thanksgiving-Discourse”: Richard Draper and Samuel Draper (printers of the Massachusetts Gazette), Benjamin Edes and John Gill (printers of the Boston-Gazette) and Thomas Fleet and John Fleet (printers of the Boston Evening-Post).
Bonus: Newspapers carried more than editorials and advertisements that commented on politics. This “ODE On the Repeal of the Stamp-Act” appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette in the same week as the advertisement for the “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.”