April 8

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 8, 1771).

“Rider from Boston to Northampton, Deerfield, &c.”

Silent Wilde’s advertisement in the April 8, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post testified to the dissemination of that newspaper to subscribers who lived far from its place of publication.  Wilde described himself as a “Rider from Boston to Northampton, Deerfield, &c.”  He served towns in the western part of the colony, one hundred miles and more from the bustling port city.  Only six newspapers were printed in the colony at the time, five of them in Boston and one in Salem.  For residents of Northampton, Deerfield, and other towns, the Boston Evening-Post was a local newspaper.

The printing office of the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, was closer than Boston, but that newspaper did not carry nearly as much news about Massachusetts matters, including coverage of the governor and the colonial assembly, as the Evening-Post and other newspapers from Boston.  The issue of the Evening-Post that carried Wilde’s advertisement, for instance, devoted two out of three columns on the front page to news with a “BOSTON, APRIL 4” dateline.  The printers evenly divided the second page between news from London and news from Boston, including exchanges between the governor and the assembly.  The Connecticut Courant reprinted news from Boston publications, but that newspaper’s coverage of Massachusetts politics and current events was not nearly as extensive as what appeared in the newspapers published in that colony.  As was the case in most colonies, newspapers printed in the largest city served as both local and regional publications, disseminating news to the far reaches of the colony.

Wilde ran his advertisement in the Evening-Post, but he indicated that he “carried the Boston News-Papers.”  His “Engagement with the Printers” to serve subscribers in western towns likely included Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, and the Massachusetts Spy.  The names of those publications suggested both local and regional coverage of news and dissemination of newspapers.  It took some time for those publications to reach residents of Northampton, Deerfield, and other towns, but they eventually read the same news and advertising, as packaged by the printers, as residents of Boston.

April 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 1, 1771).

“At the Black Boy and Butt.”

Two advertisements in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured Black bodies on display, either as part of a device that marked the location of a shop or in the description of an enslaved man who liberated himself by fleeing from his enslaver.  In each instance, an advertiser laid claim to a Black body for his own purposes and benefit.

Jonathan Williams sold “Good Madeira,” other imported wines, and cider at his shop “in Cornhill.”  To help customers identify his business, Williams marked the location with a sign, “the Black Boy and Butt,” that depicted a Black child and a large cask.  Like other purveyors of goods and services who included shop signs in their advertisements, Williams presented an image intended to represent his business, a precursor to the modern logo.  In this instance, that image commodified not only wine through the depiction of the cask but also Black men, women, and children through the depiction of the “Black Boy.”  Both wine and enslaved Black people arrived in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies via networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic.  Colonial consumers very well knew that commerce depended in large part on enslaved labor and the transatlantic slave trade.  In placing a Black boy and a cask on display, Williams’s shop sign encapsulated that relationship.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (April 1, 1771).

Elsewhere among the advertisements in that issue, Hugh McLean of Milton provided a description of “a Negro Man, named Peleg Abby” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend said Runaway.”  According to McLean, Abby was “about 26 Years of Age” and “about Five Feet Six Inches high.”  To help readers recognize the fugitive who sought his freedom so they could return him to bondage, McLean also documented the clothes Abby wore when he departed and other clothes he took with him.  McLean placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but that version also included a generic woodcut of a Black man on the run.  The image helped draw attention to that advertisement at the same time that McLean asked readers to take careful note of the age, height, and clothing of all Black men they encountered in order to discern if any of them might be the enslaved man he sought to recover.

Black people were a common sight in Boston and its hinterlands in the colonial period on the eve of the American Revolution.  Descriptions of Black bodies, sometimes accompanied by nondescript woodcuts, were also subjects of interest in the public prints, frequently appearing in newspaper advertisements published in the bustling port city.  Their presence testified to the extent that both culture and commerce, even in New England, were enmeshed the transatlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the colonies.

March 27

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

Boston Evening-Post (March 25, 1771).

“She has resigned Business to her Son.”

When Susannah Brimmer “resigned Business to her Son,” Andrew Brimmer, in 1771, she (or they) placed an advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post.  The occasion of transferring her business to her son was the first time that Susannah’s name appeared in the public prints.  She did not previously advertise when she operated the shop.  A week after the advertisement first appeared, two versions ran on March 25.  Susannah or Andrew or the two working together updated the original advertisement.

The placement of these two advertisements helps to explain the likely sequence of events.  The original version appeared on the fourth page.  The updated version appeared on the third page.  Like most other newspapers published in the 1770s, the Boston Evening-Post consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  The first and fourth pages, the “outside” of the newspaper, were printed simultaneously, as were the second and third pages, the “inside” of the newspaper.  Usually, the first and fourth pages were printed first.  That means that even though readers who perused the Boston Evening-Post from start to finish encountered the updated version first, it most likely was printed after the original version they eventually encountered on the last page.

The additional copy in the updated version made that even more likely.  More than doubling the amount of space occupied by the original version, the new copy listed dozens of items available at the shop.  The first portion retained the copy and layout for all but the final two lines.  The compositor made minor revisions that introduced a transition to the catalog of goods.  Who was responsible for extending the advertisement so significantly?  Given that Susannah never previously advertised, even though she made other astute entrepreneurial decisions, like making improvements to her shop, should the list of goods and the expense of publishing it be attributed to Andrew?  Was this an innovation that he introduced when he took control of the business?  Did Susannah make recommendations about strategies for relaunching the business in the public prints?  What explains the two variants of the advertisement and the timing of their publication?  Do the two versions represent different visions for establishing a presence in the public prints?  Or did other factors play a role in an updated version of their advertisement running in the same issue as the original version?  What stories about the intersections of gender, family, and business might these advertisements suggest but not fully reveal?

March 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (March 18, 1771).

“Susannah Brimmer … has resigned Business to he Son.”

In the early 1770s, Susannah Brimmer ran a shop the South End of Boston.  In May 1771, she placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter announcing that she “resigned Business to her Son, Andrew Brimmer.”  The younger Brimmer recently imported a “fresh Assortment of English Goods” from London and planned to sell them “Wholesale and Retail, Very Cheap for Cash.”  He also carried “Pepper, Spices, English Loaf Sugar,” and other grocery items.

Even though Susannah had been an enterprising entrepreneur who established her own clientele and made improvements to her shop, she did not appear in the pages of the Evening-Post, the Weekly News-Letter, or any of the other newspapers published in Boston prior to transferring her business to her son.  She did not place advertisements to promote her business.  Susannah instead relied on other means of attracting customers, such as renovations to her shop to enhance the shopping experience for consumers.

Not every merchant and shopkeeper in colonial Boston advertised in one or more of the many newspapers printed there, but women who ran businesses advertised less often than their male counterparts.  Certainly, fewer women than men earned their livelihoods as proprietors of businesses, yet that does not explain why they were proportionally underrepresented among advertisers.  It does not explain why Susannah never advertised until she transferred her business to Andrew.

Perhaps attitudes about women in business help to explain the reticence of some female entrepreneurs when it came to inserting advertisements in the public prints.  A satirical letter to the editor by the purported “Widows of this City” in the January 21, 1733, edition of the New-York Weekly Journal mocked “she Merchants” and their participation in any sector of the public sphere.  Shopkeepers like Susannah Brimmer may have navigated a careful course of encouraging prospective customers without drawing unwelcome attention to themselves via newspaper advertisements.  Friendships and other relationships, word of mouth, making improvements to her shop, and other strategies likely served Brimmer well in the absence of running advertisements.  Once she “resigned Business to her Son,” however, she did not have the same concerns.  To increase his likelihood of success, she recommended his shop to both “her Customers and Others,” hoping that he would build on and expand the clientele she cultivated.

February 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 18, 1771).

“Massachusetts-Spy.”

Just over six months after the Massachusetts Spy commenced publication in July 1770, printer Isaiah Thomas temporarily suspended the newspaper in early February 1771.  Thomas warned both current and prospective subscribers of the hiatus in a series of notices in the Spy, pledging that he would relaunch the newspaper, with improvements, in March.  He hoped that the plans he outlined would attract new subscribers.

During the time that Thomas suspended publication, he turned to other newspapers to promote the Spy and seek subscribers.  On February 18, he placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In each, he addressed “all LOVERS of NEWS, POLITICKS, TRUE LIBERTY, and the FREEDOM of the PRESS.”  He also declared that the Spy was “open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None,” though Thomas became an increasingly vocal supporter of the patriot cause.  Indeed, four years later he fled to the relative safety of Worcester and set up his press there because he feared retribution from British officials angered by coverage in his newspaper if he remained in Boston.

Rather than focus on politics in this advertisement, however, Thomas described the plan for publishing the improved Spy.  He originally intended to publish it on Tuesdays, the day after the newspaper that carried his advertisement, but reported that he would instead publish it on Thursdays “at the Request of a great Number of the Subscribers.”  In appearing to give the customers what they wanted, Thomas further enhanced the Spy by gaining “the Advantage of inserting what News may be brought by the Hartford-Post, who arrives on Wednesday Evenings.”  Like other newspapers, the Spy featured extracts of letters and items reprinted directly from other newspapers.

Thomas also listed other details, including the size and appearance of the newspaper and subscription rates.  The revitalized Spy “will be printed on Demy Paper, every Number to contain four Pages large Folio, and every Page four columns.”  While a couple of newspapers published in other towns at that time featured four columns per page, none of those published in Boston did.  In this manner, Thomas sought to distinguish his newspaper from the local competition.  If printers mentioned subscriptions rates in print at all, they most often did so in the plan of publication.  Thomas set the price at six shillings and eight pence per year, with half to be paid on delivery of the first issue and the other half paid at the end of the year.  Like other printers, he extended credit to subscribers.

The enterprising printer also gave instructions for subscribing, inviting “All those who are kind enough to encourage this Undertaking … to give in their Names as soon as they conveniently can.”  Thomas accepted subscriptions himself, but he also specified several agents in Boston.  They included fellow booksellers and printers, though none of the printers of other newspapers published in Boston.  He also had local agents in nearby Charlestown as well as the more distant Salem.  Thomas would eventually collect the “Subscription Papers” from his various agents and collate the names into a single subscription list.

Thomas envisioned significant improvements to the Massachusetts Spy, but he needed the support of subscribers to put his plans into effect.  He first outlined new aspects of his newspaper in the Spy before it temporarily halted publication, but then he turned to advertising in other newspapers to seek subscribers (and presumably advertisers) and generate interest as the public anticipated publication of the new Massachusetts Spy.

January 21

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

Boston Evening-Post (January 21, 1771).

“The Trial of … Soldiers in His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot.”

On January 14, 1771, John Fleeming announced that he would publish a pamphlet documenting the trial of the soldiers prosecuted for “the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, & Patrick Carr, on the Evening of the 5th March 1770,” an event now known as the Boston Massacre.  John Adams defended the soldiers in court, winning acquittals for six of them.  The other two, convicted of manslaughter for deliberately firing into the crowd, received reduced sentences after pleading benefit of clergy.  They avoided the death penalty in favor of branding on the thumbs in open court.  When Fleeming, a Tory sympathizer and former partner in publishing the discontinued Boston Chronicle, announced his plan to publish an account of the trial, Thomas and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, placed their own advertisement for “A short Narrative of the horrid MASSACRE” immediately below Fleeming’s notice.  Perhaps suspicious of what might appear in Fleeming’s pamphlet, the Fleets offered an antidote.

In the next issue of the Boston Evening-Post, Fleeming inserted a more extensive advertisement to proclaim that he had “JUST PUBLISHED” an account of “The Trial of … Soldiers in His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot; For the MURDER of” the five men who died during and soon after the Boston Massacre.  The printer noted that this account had been “Taken in short Hand by John Hodgdon” and furthermore it was “Published by Permission of the Court.”  Perhaps to alleviate lingering suspicions about how much commentary he might insert or otherwise attempt to further shape the narrative in favor of the soldiers, Fleeming included a note near the conclusion of his advertisement.  “In this Publication,” he declared, “great Care has been taken to render the Evidence as accurate as possible, by comparing Mr. Hodgdon’s Copy with other Minutes taken at the Trial.”  Fleeming also listed the various contents of the pamphlet, from “The Indictments against the Prisoners” to “the Verdict returned by the Jury.”  The pamphlet provided a complete account of events associated with the trial, Fleeming assured the public.

This advertisement met with different treatment by the Fleets compared to Fleeming’s previous advertisement.  They placed it in the lower right corner of the first page, the only advertisement on that page.  In addition, the advertisement listed both Fleeming and “the Printers hereof” as sellers of the pamphlet.  Apparently the Fleets, who tended to favor the patriot cause, though not as vociferously as Benjamin Edes and John Gill in the Boston Gazette, found that the pamphlet accurately rendered the events of the trial.  They even saw an opportunity to generate revenues at their own printing office by retailing copies.  They already encouraged participation in the commodification of events related to the imperial crisis, having marketed “A short Narrative of the horrid MASSACRE.”  Even as they endorsed Fleeming’s new publication, they also continued to run advertisements for that earlier pamphlet elsewhere in the newspaper.  Interest in Fleeming’s new pamphlet about the trial had the potential to reinvigorate demand for an account of the events that led to the trial.

January 14

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

Boston Evening-Post (January 14, 1771).

“A short Narrative of the horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON.”

Commemoration and commodification of the American Revolution occurred simultaneously, the process beginning years before the first shots were fired at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775.  The Boston Massacre took place on March 5, 1770.  A week later, the town meeting appointed James Bowdoin, Samuel Pemberton, and Samuel Warren to a committee charged with preparing an account of that infamous event.  The committee quickly prepared A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston and presented it to the town meeting on March 19.  The town meeting accepted the account and ordered it printed immediately.  The Short Narrative quickly became available to consumers, its imprint declaring that it was “Printed by Order of the Town of Boston, and Sold by Edes and Gill, in Queen-Street, and T. & J. Fleet, in Cornhill.”  Other commemorative items quickly hit the market as well.  On March 26, Paul Revere advertised his “PRINT containing a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street.”  A week later, Henry Pelham announced a similar print, “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,” available for purchase at local printing offices.

Months later, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, occasionally advertised the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.  On January 14, 1771, they reminded readers of one of the most significant events of the previous year when they once again ran advertisement for the Short Narrative.  An advertisement for another book likely prompted them to market the Short Narrative approved by the town meeting once again.  They inserted their advertisement immediately below John Fleeming’s notice that he would soon publish “The Trial of William Wemmes, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, for the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, & Patrick Carr, on the Evening of the 5th March 1770.”  Following a vigorous defense by John Adams, a jury acquitted six of those soldiers and found the other two guilty of manslaughter.  The latter managed to reduce their sentences from death to having their thumbs branded by pleading benefit of clergy.  Fleeming, the printer who offered an account of the trial to the public, had formerly published the Boston Chronicle, noted for its Tory sympathies, in partnership with John Mein.  That newspaper ceased publication in 1770, shortly after angry colonists chased Mein out of town.

The account of the trial and its outcome ran counter to the version of events depicted in the Short Narrative and the prints produced by Pelham and Revere.  It became another entry in the propaganda battle of competing stories presented in newspapers, prints, and pamphlets, published in both Boston and London, following the Boston Massacre.  It could hardly be considered a coincidence that the Fleets just happened to advertise the Short Narrative once again just as Fleeming announced publication of a pamphlet about the trial of the soldiers, especially since their advertisement appeared immediately after Fleeming’s notice.  The Fleets did not censor Fleeming from advertising in their newspaper, but they did insist on having the last word in hopes of shaping the narrative for the public.

January 7

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

Boston Evening-Post (January 7, 1771).

“Dr. Whitaker’s Sermon on the Death of Mr. WHITEFIELD.”

In addition to publishing the Boston Evening-Post, printers Thomas Fleet and John Fleet sold a variety of books at their shop at the Sign of the Heart and Crown.  Throughout the colonies, printers commonly augmented their incomes by selling books and pamphlets, mostly items that they either imported or acquired from associates in other towns alongside a few titles they produced on their own.

Such was the case in the advertisement the Fleets inserted in their own newspaper on January 7, 1771.  They concluded the notice with Jeremiah Dummer’s Defence of the New-England Charters, a pamphlet they reprinted in 1765, but they first listed titles published by others.  The Fleets devoted half of the notice to a pamphlet printed by William Goddard.  In The Partnership, Goddard detailed his disputes with “Joseph Galloway, Esq; Speaker of the Honorable House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania, Mr. Thomas Wharton, sen.,” a prominent merchant, “and their Man Benjamin Towne,” a journeyman printer.  The four men had formerly been partners in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, but their disagreements led to a dissolution of the partnership in the summer of 1770 and a war of words in newspapers, handbills, and pamphlets.

The other titles available at the Heart and Crown included “Dr. Whitaker’s Sermon on the Death of Mr. WHITEFIELD.”  George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770.  In the wake of his death, printers and others produced, marketed, and sold a variety of commemorative items, including funeral sermons preached in memory of the minister.  For several months, advertisements for those items appeared alongside reports about reactions to the news in towns throughout the colonies and poetry composed for the occasion.  The Fleets’ advertisement, listing the funeral sermon third among four titles, marked a transition in the marketing of items commemorating Whitefield.  No longer was Whitefield the sole or even primary focus of the advertisement.  As time passed and the minister’s death became more distant in the memories of prospective buyers, the Fleets recognized that demand for such commemorative items waned.  Funeral sermons no longer had the same immediacy as when the news was fresh.  As a result, they became one item among several in booksellers’ inventories rather than items that merited advertisements of their own in the public prints.

After several months of Whitefield fervor, especially in newspapers published in New England, printers and booksellers like the Fleets recalibrated their advertising efforts.  In this case, a spirited account of a bitter feud among printers and politicians in Pennsylvania received top billing over a sermon in memory Whitefield.

December 24

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

Boston Evening-Post (December 24, 1770).

“The Royal Exchange Tavern … will be opened this Day as a COFFEE-HOUSE.”

When Abigail Stoneman opened a new coffeehouse in Boston in December 1770, she attempted to increase the visibility of her venture by advertising in multiple newspapers rather than trusting that word-of-mouth recommendations and the readership of a single publication would be sufficient to attract customers.  Having “repaired and fitted for the Reception of Company” the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street, Stoneman announced that it now operated as a coffeehouse, though she also provided furnished lodgings “for constant or occasional Boarders.”

To spread the news widely, she placed notices in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, three of the five newspapers published in Boston at the time.  She did not insert her advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter or the Massachusetts Spy.  The latter had only recently launched and carried few advertisements, perhaps indicative of a smaller readership and, accordingly, fewer prospective customers.  Her budget for advertising may have prompted Stoneman to limit her efforts to three newspapers instead of placing notices in all four with wider distributions.

The copy and format of Stoneman’s advertisements further confirm the division of labor evident in other paid notices that ran in multiple newspapers.  The advertiser assumed responsibility for composing the copy, but the compositor exercised discretion when it came to format.  Stoneman’s advertisements featured identical copy (with the exception of a dateline that did not appear in the Boston Evening-Post, though that very well could have been a decision made by the compositor).  The format from newspaper to newspaper, however, varied.  The iteration in the Boston Evening-Post had the most recognizable headline and made use of centering for “COFFEE-HOUSE” in a larger font.  The other two iterations treated the copy as a single paragraph that lacked centering or white space to draw attention to significant aspects.

Regardless of the graphic design decisions made by compositors for the various newspapers, Stoneman informed the public that she offered hospitality at a new coffeehouse in the Royal Exchange Tavern.  Readers of multiple newspapers encountered her invitation to enjoy the new atmosphere at the Royal Exchange Tavern, repaired and remodeled as a coffeehouse.  Whether or not readers had previously visited, she welcomed them all to her new enterprise.

November 26

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

Boston Evening-Post (November 26, 1770).

“Those Customers who live in the Country are more particularly desired to pay some Attention to the above reasonable Request.”

Extensive credit played an important role in fueling the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.  Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans all extended credit to their customers.  Printers did the same, often for periods of years rather than merely weeks or months.  Newspaper printers regularly inserted notices into their publications to call on subscribers, advertisers, and others to pay their debts.  In some instances, they stated that their ability to continue disseminating the news depended on customers paying their overdue bills.  More often, they threatened legal action against those who did not settle accounts by a specified date.

On November 26, 1770, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, once again joined the chorus of printers who inserted such notices in their newspapers.  They requested that “All Persons indebted for this Paper, whose Accounts have been 12 Months standing … to make immediate Payment.”  Although they did not suggest taking anyone to court, they did express some exasperation with those who had not heeded previous notices.  “Those Customers who live in the Country,” the Fleets implored, “are more particularly desired to pay some Attention to the above reasonable Request.”

To increase the likelihood that those customers at least saw the notice, the Fleets deployed a couple of strategies.  First, they made it the first item in the first column on the first page.  It appeared immediately below the masthead and immediately above news items rather than interspersed among other advertisements.  Even if they only skimmed the contents to find items of interest, readers who perused that issue of the Boston Evening-Post were likely to spot the Fleets’ notice.  To help call attention to it and underscore its importance, the Fleets included several manicules.  A manicule on the first line directed attention to the notice.  A line composed of seventeen manicules beneath the advertisement seemed to insist that readers take note of what appeared above them.  Although the Fleets did not threaten to sue recalcitrant customers, they used other means to suggest they were serious about receiving overdue payments.