May 22

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 20, 1771).

“A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons … at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”

Following the custom of the time, the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette arranged news accounts according to geography.  News from London (dated April 2), far away, came first, followed by news from other colonies.  The printers also selected updates from Newport (dated May 13) and Portsmouth (dated May 17), in that order, getting closer to their own city before inserting news from Boston (dated May 20).  The local news included a curious item: “A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons, Clouting Diapers, Dowlasses, Huckabuck, Irish Linnens, Silk and Linnen Handkerchiefs, may be had very cheap at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane, if apply’d for this Day.”  Rather than news, it read like an advertisement that belonged elsewhere in the newspaper.

The same item appeared among the news dated “BOSTON, May 20” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and in the Boston Evening-Post.  All three newspapers printed in Boston on that day included what otherwise looked like an advertisement among the local news.  In each case, the printers reprinted some items from a supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published on May 16.  They also inserted new items, varying the order.  In other words, a compositor did not set type from start to finish for content that first appeared elsewhere.  The printers of each newspaper made decisions about which items to include and in which order.  They all decided to include this advertisement among the local news.

Why?  Was it a favor for Joseph Russell, one of the proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  Russell was also a successful auctioneer who regularly advertised in several newspapers rather than restricting his marketing efforts to his own publication.  For instance, he placed an advertisement for an upcoming auction in the May 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  He gave the usual location, “the Auction-Room in Queen-street” rather than “the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”  Something distinguished the sale of the “large and elegant Assortment” of textiles as different, meriting a one-day-only sale at Russell’s home rather than the auction house … and its unique placement among news items instead of alongside other advertisements.

As a partner in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Russell certainly exercised some influence in the placement of his advertisements, even though John Green oversaw the day-to-day operations of the newspaper.  Deciding to experiment with an unusual placement for his notice, Russell may have convinced other printers to give his advertisement a privileged place in their publications as well.  In his History of Printing in America (1810), Isaiah Thomas described Russell as “full of life,” asserting that “[f]ew men had more friends, or were more esteemed.  In all companies he rendered himself agreeable.”[1]  Perhaps this vivacious auctioneer convinced his partner and several other printers to slip an advertisement into a place that such notices did not customarily appear in the 1770s.

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[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 140.

October 18

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

Oct 18 - 10:18:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 18, 1768).

“Those who intend to encourage this Work are requested to send their Names to Peter Valton, Mr. Peter Timothy, or Mr. Robert Wells.”

When it came to publishing newspapers, Peter Timothy, Robert Wells, and Charles Crouch were competitors. All three operated printing shops in Charleston, where Timothy published the South-Carolina Gazette, Wells published the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, and Crouch published the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. This did not, however, preclude their cooperation when it came to other ventures.

In the fall of 1768, Peter Valton circulated a subscription notice that announced his intention to publish “SIX SONATAS For the HARPSICHORD or ORGAN, WITH An Accompanyment for a VIOLIN.” Valton intended for the subscription notice to incite demand. For instance, he highlighted the quality of the paper, promised to print the names of subscribers in recognition of their support for this genteel endeavor, and offered to provide a seventh copy free to anyone who pledged to purchase six. Valton also used the subscription notice to gauge interest in the project. He needed to know if he could attract enough subscribers to make it a viable venture and, if so, how many copies to print without ending up with an unprofitable surplus. To that end, he instructed, “Those who intend to encourage this Work are requested to send their Names to Peter Valton, Mr. Peter Timothy, or Mr. Robert Wells.” When Valton inserted the advertisement in the October 18 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, its appearance brought together all three of Charleston’s newspaper publishers.

All three stood to profit from the venture, either directly or indirectly. According to Odai Johnson, Wells was the intended printer.[1] Robust sales of the prospective publication would certainly benefit him. Yet all three printers generated revenues by publishing Valton’s subscription notice in their newspapers. Timothy further lent support for the project by collecting the names of subscribers. Promoting a culture of consumption contributed to their livelihoods, even if they were not the producers or purveyors of the printed materials advertised in their newspapers.

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[1] Odai Johnson, London in a Box: Englishness and Theatre in Revolutionary America (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 167.

November 2

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

Nov 2 - 11:2:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (November 2, 1767).

“China Ware and Paper, much cheaper than they will come a little while hence.”

In the fall of 1767, Caleb Blanchard placed the same advertisement in multiple newspapers published in Boston, increasing the likelihood that potential customers would learn that he stocked an assortment of imported goods. In the course of a single week, his advertisement appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette on October 29 (examined yesterday) and the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on November 2. Blanchard certainly was not the only colonial merchant who attempted to broadcast his marketing efforts as widely as possible by advertising in several newspapers. By the late 1760s this was a fairly common strategy among advertisers in port cities with competing newspapers.

Yet Blanchard’s advertisement merits attention not only because it was the same advertisement, in terms of the content, in more than one newspaper. On closer examination it appears to have been the same advertisement set with the same type yet printed in two different newspapers.

At a glance, it is fairly easy to distinguish between the typography of Blanchard’s advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and its counterpart in the Boston-Gazette. The compositors make different decisions about capitalization, italics, and line breaks. In addition, the Massachusetts Gazette version lists three captains who imported Blanchard’s inventory but the version in the Boston-Gazette includes only two. While they had the same copy (with the exception of the third captain), these were two different advertisements.

Comparing the versions in the Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Evening-Post, however, does not yield any readily apparent visual discrepancies. Even after examining the original issues in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, the advertisements do not seem to be distinctive or unique to their respective publications. Instead, it appears that Richard Draper at Massachusetts Gazette and Thomas and John Fleet at the Boston Evening-Post shared an advertisement set in type at one printing office and transported to the other.

This requires a lot more investigation, especially since this is not the first instance of this sort of cooperation and sharing of advertisements among Boston printers during the fall of 1767 that I have encountered. This example raises many questions about the printing trade and the business practices adopted in Boston that will require much more research. Yet I wanted to highlight these advertisements as a means of demonstrating how a much larger project can originate from discovering something unexpected. Blanchard’s advertisements are only a tiny part of an expansive print culture in eighteenth-century America, yet they suggest that big questions come from small pieces of evidence.

Nov 1 - 10:29:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (October 29, 1767).
Nov 2 - 11:2:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (November 2, 1767).