What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Hand-Bills in particular done in a neat and correct Manner.”
Like many other colonial printers who published newspapers, but not all of them, John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette used the colophon at the bottom of the final page to promote services available at his printing office rather than merely giving the name and location of the printer. In the early 1770s, the colophon for the Providence Gazette regularly advised that customers could place orders for job printing “at Shakespear’s Head, … where all Manner of Printing-Work is performed with Care and Expedition.” Job printing orders included broadsides, trade cards, handbills, and blanks (or forms) of various sorts.
On April 25, 1772, Carter added an additional line to the colophon, advising prospective customers about “Hand-Bills in particular done in a neat and correct Manner, at a very short Notice, and on reasonable Terms.” Among the newspaper printers who inserted extended colophons that doubled as advertisements for their printing offices, others also gave handbills special emphasis. In Boston, Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, included a note in his colophon that declared, “Small HAND-BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.” In Philadelphia, the colophon for William Goddard’s Pennsylvania Chronicle concluded with “Blanks and Hand-Bills, in particular, are done on the shortest Notice, in a neat and correct Manner.” Solomon Southwick, the printer of the Newport Mercury, on the other hand, focused on “all Kinds of BLANKS commonly used in this Colony.”
That several printers made a point of including handbills among the services listed in their colophons suggests that they regularly received orders for such items, likely far more orders than those examples in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections suggest. That Thomas proclaimed that his printing office could produce handbills so quickly further testifies to the likelihood that merchants, shopkeepers, and others distributed handbills as an alternative or as a supplement to newspaper notices, creating a more visible and vibrant culture of advertising in early America, especially in urban ports, than surviving primary sources alone indicate. Since handbills were intended to be ephemeral and disposable, colonizers did not save and preserve them in the same manner that newspaper printers and some subscribers compiled complete runs of many eighteenth-century newspapers, complete with the advertisements they contained.