What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BOSTON: Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.”
When Isaiah Thomas published the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY” in July 1770, he included advertising among the many services that his new publication would provide. “Those who chose to advertise herein,” he promised, “may depend on having their ADVERTISEMENTS inserted in a neat and conspicuous Manner, at the most reasonable rates.” He also pledged to maintain an appropriate balance between advertising and news items, never publishing one the exclusion of the other: “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness,” the Massachusetts Spy “will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.” Advertising would not crowd out other “Intelligence,” but advertising also qualified as “Intelligence” since it delivered information to readers.
Advertising also constituted an important revenue stream for printers who published newspapers, one that Thomas did not manage to cultivate in the first days of the Massachusetts Spy. The inaugural issue called on advertisers to submit their notices, but three weeks later when Thomas commenced thrice-weekly publication he did not yet have advertisements to insert alongside other “Intelligence.” In the fourth issue, distributed on August 11, 1770, the only item that even resembled an advertisement was the colophon: “BOSTON: Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.” Some printers used the colophon for more explicit descriptions of the goods and services they provided at the printing office, but Thomas opted for a streamlined format that was also popular among printers.
Thomas may have been frustrated but not surprised that residents of Boston did not submit advertisements as soon as he launched the Massachusetts Spy. After all, the city was one of the busiest newspaper markets in the colonies when it came to the number of publications. Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several well-established publications that regularly carried significant amounts of advertising, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury. The Boston Chronicle had recently folded, which may have prompted Thomas to believe there was room for a new newspaper in the city, but that publication never featured many advertisements, though in its later days that very well could have been a consequence of its strident Tory tone. The Massachusetts Spy eventually became a successful newspaper that captured its share of the market for advertisements, but in its early days advertisers waited for the new newspaper to increase its circulation numbers before investing in inserting notices in it.