August 4

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

Aug 4 - 8:4:1766 Connecticut Courant
Connecticut Courant (August 4, 1766).

“All those who owe small trifling Debts, must discharge them before the End of August.”

Thomas Davidson wanted to settle accounts and catch up on his bookkeeping. To those ends he published an advertisement with a timetable for customers to pay their debts. Those with “small trifling Debts” had four weeks (“before the End of August”) to pay up, while others who owed more substantial amounts had nearly twice as long (“before the latter End of September next”). Davisdon warned that customers in both categories needed to be punctual or else he would take a step he considered “very disagreeable.” He threatened to sue those who did not heed his call to pay what they owed.

Davidson preferred cash, but he was more interested in settling accounts. If necessary, he was willing to accept a variety of goods that his customers presumably produced on their own farms: “Wheat, Rye, Indian-Corn or Pork.” Cash, credit, and barter all served as modes of exchange in the economy of colonial Connecticut as buyers and sellers negotiated final reckonings for their exchanges.

Although the primary purpose of Davidson’s advertisement seems to have been settling accounts, he also sought to generate more business. After warning customers with outstanding debts that he would sue them “without further Notice,” he announced that he sold “WEST-INDIA RUM, by the Hogshead, or smaller Quantity.” Apparently he did not want to find himself in a similar situation with prospective sales. He declared that he sold the rum “for Cash only.” Such was the tradeoff for purchasing the rum “very cheap.” Customers had to pay in cash.

Eighteenth-century account books, ledgers, and letters are the best sources for revealing business practices of merchants and shopkeepers, but advertisements often provide useful supplements that also demonstrate the public face that entrepreneurs presented to customers and their communities.

July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 4, 1766).

“We beg such Delinquent Customers would reflect upon their extreme Ill usage of us.”

Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, “THE Printers of this Paper,” meant business. They were exasperated with subscribers and advertisers who refused to pay their bills. To demonstrate that they were not going to put up with such “Arrearages” any longer, they placed this advertisement in a prominent location in their newspaper. It appeared at the top of the final column on the third page, the very last item readers encountered when scanning the interior of a broadsheet folded in half to create a four-page newspaper. In length, it extended halfway down the page. This was valuable space that the printers could have given over to advertising (assuming said advertisers actually paid their bills), but Fowle and Fowle determined that calling in debts was the better investment.

Fowle and Fowle offered a valuable service at a low price – “the most material Foreign and Domestick Intelligence carried with very trifling Expence” – and they expected to be compensated in a timely manner. Credit was an important part of the colonial economy, but the printers were more than generous in extending credit to their patrons. Some subscribers had fallen behind “three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine Years.” As a result, the printers threatened to sue “delinquent Customers for News Papers, Advertisement, &c.” if those customers did not settle their accounts. The printers even arranged a series of meetings in the towns where they distributed their newspapers. It was not necessary for subscribers to visit their printing office in Portsmouth. The printers were willing pay the necessary expenses to come to them, if only they would pay their bills.

Benjamin Franklin famously made such a fortune as a printer that he was able to retire at a relatively young age to pursue a variety of other vocations. This advertisement demonstrates that other printers experienced challenges to achieving such success.

June 14

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

Jun 14 - 6:13:1766 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 13, 1766).

“Those who fail complying may depend upon being sued.”

Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans frequently placed advertisements advising their customers to settle their debts or face the consequences. Both the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century and the colonial economy operated on credit, often webs of credit that extended far beyond consumers and the retailers who sold them goods. Those same retailers had often procured imported goods from English merchants on credit themselves. Hard money was fairly rare in the colonies, often making credit a necessary substitute. Yet extending credit had its risks. Producers, suppliers, and retailers might never receive payment. Consumers might find themselves hauled into court when they did not pay.

Thomas Craig expressed exasperation in his advertisement calling on “those who have been dilatory in paying off their accounts to discharge them.” He wanted to receive payment while the current court was sitting. While this might have seemed like short notice to some, he reminded them that he had “long before now advertised” that the “present state of my affairs makes it absolutely necessary” to settle accounts.

Still, Craig depended on the good will of customers to continue to earn a living. He knew enough about customer service to attempt to mediate any offense he might have given to “good and punctual customers” by offering a nota bene that emphasized that his advertisement was not directed at them. He needed payment from others, but he did not want to risk alienating those who settled their accounts in a timely fashion.

April 20

GUEST CURATOR:  Trevor Delp

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

Apr 20 - 4:17:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 17, 1766)

“The Trustees of the Estate of John Butler.”

Today’s advertisement regards a legal notice alerting all colonists that John Butler died and his account was being settled. Colonial Americans struggled to settle estate cases, especially involving those that did not have a prewritten will. In an article discussing “English Law in American Land Research,” Sandra Hargreaves Luebking says, “The colonies lacked the judges, lawyers, law schools, and elaborate court system to implement English property law in all its complexity, but most of the basic concepts crossed the Atlantic and exist in the land records genealogists use.” The system brought to the colonies from Great Britain was very complicated and the average colonist lacked the knowledge to understand.

The advertisement began with a dated notice – April 16, 1766 – that asked “Creditors of said Butler, to meet at the British Coffee-House in Boston, … then and there to transact such Matters and Things relating to said Debtor’s Estate as may be thought necessary.” In the following paragraph it requests that all indebted to John Butler pay the same to Daniel Leonard, an attorney at law, who was handling the estate. It then goes onto threaten that those “who neglect making Payment, may depend on being sued to July Court, without further Notice.” This was something that I found unique to colonial advertisements and almost nonexistent in modern advertisements.

I was curious about how Butler and other debtors paid the money they owed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, in colonial America coins were the original primary form of currency, although they were not always in circulation. The first use of paper money was in “bills of credit.” These notes were redeemable in coin. One problem with these bills was that they led many colonists into debt that would be hard to repay. A project by Louis Jordan of Notre Dame states, “In 1749 the British government sent Massachusetts Bay Colony two tons of Spanish silver coins and ten tons of British coppers (primarily 1749 dated halfpence) as reimburse for assistance they provided to the Lewisburg expedition on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during the French and Indian War.” This shows that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was given a chance to start using silver as their main currency again. Furthermore, according to, Alvin Rabushka’s book, Taxation in Colonial America, “Under the 1749 Massachusetts Currency Reform, all debts and contracts from March 31, 1750, onward would be payable only in silver coin, and any court judgments brought for the recovery of debts would be converted into silver coin at the specified exchange rate for the different tenors.”

This leads me to believe that because Butler owned and ran his own shop with multiple forms of currencies with different exchange rates coming and going it would be easy to fall into debt and then struggle to escape it with the new act requiring only silver currency. The problem did not get any better once the colonies declared independence. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, during the Revolutionary War, the new nation issued too much money, causing inflation and by the end of the war the paper money was almost worthless. In the time leading up to the war the fluctuating value of money could explain why John Butler was in such debt. Furthermore, it would explain why he was not only in deb himself, but had customers who were in debt to him and expected to repay what they owe after his death.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Estate and probate notices were a common type of advertisement that appeared in colonial newspapers, often (depending on the newspaper) as frequently as advertisements for consumer goods and services. This sort of notice, complete with its stern language threatening further legal action, may seem unfamiliar to Trevor and other modern readers, but such notices were largely unremarkable alongside other advertisements in the colonial era.

Trevor has identified some of the reasons why it was easy for colonists to fall into debt. Certainly the lack of hard currency played a significant role. It also led to networks of credit: within cities and villages, throughout the colonies, and across the Atlantic. The consumer revolution of the eighteenth century occurred, in part, because merchants extended credit to retailers and, in turn, retailers extended credit to consumers. Appeals to price became a standard part of eighteenth-century advertisements, but they were often accompanied by specifications that retailers offered credit to tempt potential customers into making purchases (or sometimes explicitly stated that low prices could be had in exchange for cash, perhaps to avoid some of the problems raised in today’s advertisement).

The Economic History Association offers an overview of “Credit in the Colonial American Economy.”

March 22

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

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

Mar 22 - 3:20:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (March 20, 1766).

“JAMES ASKEW, Post-Rider … desires the Favour of his Customer that have not paid … to pay him … before the 30th of March.”

James Askew placed this advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette to notify his customers of an impending stoppage of service. As the local post rider he delivered newspapers once a week along with any mail for that area. His route included the towns of Lancaster, Carlisle, and Shippensburg, founded in 1709, 1751, and 1730, respectively, some of the oldest inland settlements in colonial Pennsylvania. Askew seems to have covered the southwestern area of colonial Pennsylvania to the boundary of established counties.

Pennsylvania Counties 1752
Pennsylvania Counties as of 1752 (Ber = Berks; Buc = Bucks; Ch = Chester; Cu = Cumberland; Lan = Lancaster; Nhn = Northampton; Ph = Philadelphia; Yo = York).

He most likely delivered the Pennsylvania Gazette with his own advertisement in it for his own customers to see. Askew used very polite and proper language, such as “desires the favour of his customers that have not paid” and “their compliance will oblige their humble servant,” to get his customers to pay their outstanding bill with him. He then reminds them of their yearly “Entrance Money” for his services, which is common even today for some services. With this advertisement being placed in the March 20 paper he gave customers until March 30 to pay their bills. This would be one more week of newspapers to be dropped off, the Thursday, March 27 issue. Since it was already March that meant that some of these bills were very old because the language that he used made it seems like some of them came from before the new year. Even the “Entrance Money” that was due on March 30 was three months late! Askew gave clear instructions that the money should be left were he delivered his customers’ papers or to pay him in person.

However, a second look at the advertisement that goes beyond the pleasant wording reveals an interesting underlying tone. When I read it I sensed a slightly aggressive or threatening tone by the end. When someone says to “expect further trouble” I do no think of good things. Although each colony had its own laws regarding what would happen to debtors, none of the punishments sound good. As I was doing research for this advertisement I discovered Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey (edited by William Nelson and published in 1903). It included an excerpt from the Pennsylvania Gazette‘s April 10, 1766, issue: an advertisement calling debtors and their creditors into court to figure out what to do.

Mar 22 - 4:10:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (April 10, 1766).

Often the offender would be sent to debtors’ prison or would have to sell off his belongings to pay his creditors. In colonial America, even worse then being sent to debtors’ prison was the public shame and embarrassment, often including publishing offenders’ names in the newspaper for everyone to see. Many colonial Americans were not very forgiving of those who fell from grace this way.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

James Askew was anxious for his customers to pay him for the newspapers he delivered from Philadelphia. As Elizabeth explains, some owed arrears from the previous year, while others had not yet paid for the current year. Askew gave plenty of notice that his patrons needed to pay or else face legal consequences. Today’s advertisement also appeared in two previous issues: on March 6 and 13. The post rider gave delinquents fair warning that he would no longer tolerate their refusal to pay for the services he provided.

Advertisements like this one suggest that printers were not the only ones who took a financial risk when extending credit while selling and distributing newspapers. (Recall a recently featured advertisement in which the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette called on subscribers and advertisers to pay their bills.) John Bolton, another post rider who had patrons from Chester to West Nottingham, placed a similar advertisement in the same issue as this notice from Askew. He also threatened that those who refused to pay “may depend on being dealt with as the Law directs, without respect of Persons, or further Notice.” Bolton stated that he did not care if his (former) customers were the most humble or the most prominent residents in the towns he served. Anyone who contracted a debt with him was expected to pay up.

Mar 22 - Post Rider 3:20:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (March 20, 1766).

Most of the advertisements featured here highlight attempts to sell goods and services to colonial consumers. Elizabeth has chosen an advertisement that demonstrates another aspect of doing business: some colonists eagerly obtained certain goods and services yet neglected to pay for them, at least not in a timely fashion. As a result, some advertisements encouraged payments from those whose demand had so far outstripped their willingness to pay.

January 10

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

Jan 10 - 1:10:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (January 10, 1766)

“ALL Persons … Indebted to the Printers hereof, for News-Papers, Advertisement, Books, &c. … Are ONCE MORE desired … to call at the Printing-Office.”

Historians of print culture have long contended that selling subscriptions did not make publishing newspapers profitable for colonial printers.  Instead, the real money was in charging for the advertisements!  I do not doubt the veracity of this claim, especially given how carefully so many other scholars have scrutinized the account books, ledgers, and other records of colonial printers.

However, I suspect that we sometimes overestimate the amount of revenue generated by newspaper advertising if we assume, when printers’ records are no longer extant to confirm that this was indeed the case, that each time an advertisement appeared in a new issue that the printer received payment.  In this instance, the printers of New-Hampshire Gazette placed their own advertisement to call on delinquent advertisers to pay for services rendered.  On many other occasions, some advertisements repeat for weeks or months, suggesting that printers sometimes used them for filler even without remuneration.