October 27

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 24, 1771).

“Neatly engraved … The BOSTON MASSACRE.”

In the fall of 1771, Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, advertised an almanac for the coming year.  In the October 27 edition of his newspaper, he announced that he published the “Massachusetts CALENDAR; or an ALMANACK, for the year, 1772.”  He deployed several strategies to market the almanac to both retailers and readers.  Like many printers, he listed the contents as a preview for prospective buyers.  In addition to the usual astronomical calculations, this almanac included “Several Select Pieces … On Liberty and Government; Thoughts on Government; On the Culture of Silk,” and other essays.  In addition, it contained poetry and useful tables, including one for calculating interest “on a Entire new Construction.”

Thomas also noted the price, including discounts for retailers and others who bought in volume.  A single copy cost three shillings, but a dozen only twenty-two shillings and six pence.  That meant that anyone who purchased eight copies received four additional copies for free, a pricing scheme that allowed booksellers, shopkeepers, and others to charge competitive prices that still allowed them to generate profits on the sale of the almanac.  In addition, Thomas emphasized that he published “The SECOND Edition,” suggesting that this particular almanac was especially popular among the many choices available to consumers.  Anyone interested in acquiring copies needed to act quickly.

To further entice customers, Thomas also promoted the “FOUR Plates, neatly engraved” that embellished the almanac.  Those images included “The four Seasons, with the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac,” rather standard fare in eighteenth-century almanacs, as well as portraits of “The King of Denmark” and “Mr. Weatherwise,” whose “Prognosticks” appeared among the contents.  Thomas considered one image especially significant, a depiction of “The BOSTON MASSACRE, on the evening of the 5th of March 1770.”  He listed it first and used capital letters to draw attention to this relief cut from an engraving attributed to Paul Revere.  The combination of essays examining “Liberty and Government” and an image of the Boston Massacre made clear that this almanac incorporated a particular political ideology among its contents.  This was an almanac for American patriots who remained vigilant throughout the imperial crisis.

April 2

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

Apr 2 - 4:2:1770 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (April 2, 1770).

“An Original Print, representing the late horrid Massacre in King Street.”

Although Paul Revere’s engraving is more famous, Henry Pelham also produced a print depicting the Boston Massacre shortly after the event took place.  He marketed his engraving, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, in the April 2, 1770, editions of the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette, a week after Revere promoted his Bloody Massacre in those same newspapers.  The Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, so both men moved quickly to make a visual representation of the event available for public consumption.  Revere offered his print for sale just three weeks after soldiers from the 29th Regiment shot into a crowd, wounding several colonists.  Some died of their wounds on the spot; others died soon after.  By the time Revere and Pelham marketed their prints, five colonists had died.

Many consumers may have thought that Pelham’s Fruits of Arbitrary Power closely resembled Revere’s Bloody Massacre, but the opposite was actually the case.  Pelham shared his drawing with Revere, then expressed dismay that his fellow engraver moved forward with his own print based on the drawing and beat Pelham to market by a week.  Their advertisements also resembled each other, neither of them particularly flashy considering the products they presented to consumers.  Pelham’s advertisement simply stated, “To be Sold by EDES and GILL and T. and J. FLEET, (Price Eight Pence) The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, an Original Print, representing the late horrid Massacre in King Street, taken from the Spot.”  (The version in the Boston Evening-Post switched the order of the printers who sold the print.  Each partnership gave itself top billing.). In stating that Fruits of Arbitrary Power was “an Original Print,” Pelham took a swipe at Revere and attempted to set the record straight.

Perhaps neither Revere nor Pelham considered it necessary to devise flashy advertisements for their competing prints.  After all, the Boston Massacre occurred only weeks earlier.  It received extensive newspaper coverage, including descriptions of the funeral procession honoring the victims.  Coverage continued as Boston prepared for a trial of Captain Thomas Preston and soldiers from the 29th Regiment.  Beyond the several newspapers printed in the busy port, the Boston Massacre was surely the talk of the town.  Neither the engravers who produced the prints nor the printers who sold them needed to explain their significance beyond noting that they depicted the “horrid Massacre” and offering brief commentary.  The title of Pelham’s engraving, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, summed up the political calculus of the event.  He apparently considered that sufficient to convince consumers that they needed to acquire his memento of the Boston Massacre.  Consumption played a vital role in commemoration.

March 26

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

Mar 26 - 3:26:1770 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (March 26, 1770).

“A PRINT, containing a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King-street.”

Only three weeks after the Boston Massacre colonial consumers could purchase engravings depicting the event.  On March 26, 1770, the first advertisements appeared in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.  Both announced “A PRINT, containing a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King-street” available for sale by Edes and Gill, the patriot printers of the Boston-Gazette.  Engraved by Paul Revere, this print has become the most iconic image of the Boston Massacre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (though more colonists likely encountered woodcuts depicting the coffins of the victims that accompanied newspaper coverage of the event and the funeral procession than purchased or even glimpsed Revere’s Bloody Massacre in the eighteenth century).

Widely considered a piece of propaganda rather than an accurate depiction of the event that transpired on the evening of March 5, Revere’s engraving was the first to hit the consumer market in 1770.  Controversy at the time focused less on any liberties taken with the facts and more on Revere basing his work on an engraving by Henry Pelham and then issuing his own version so quickly that he edged out Pelham.  As the Massachusetts Historical Society explains, “Although Pelham created his image, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power first, somehow Revere, working from Pelham’s rendition of the scene, created, advertised, and issued his own version, The Bloody Massacre, ahead of Pelham’s.”  Although the advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette did not name Revere as the engraver, they certainly promoted sales of his depiction of the event.

Mar 26 - 3:26:1770 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (March 26, 1770).

Pelham considered this an injustice.  He wrote to Revere shortly after the advertisements first appeared.  “When I heard that you was cutting a plate of the late Murder,” Pelham lamented, “I thought it impossible as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you coppied it from mine and I thought I had intrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and trust I reposed in you.”  For his part, Revere may have been more concerned with disseminating as quickly as possible an incriminating image of the 29th Regiment firing on colonists.  After all, just as printers liberally reprinted news, letters, and editorials from one newspaper to another, eighteenth-century engravers frequently copied images that came into their possession, though usually after they had been published.

Did Revere weigh the “dictates of Honour and Justice” against serving the patriot cause and determine that the latter mattered more?  To what extent did the sirens of fame and fortune play a role in his decision to copy Pelham’s engraving and make his own version the first available for public consumption?  Can these questions be separated, or must they each inform the other?  Like printers and booksellers who profited from publishing and selling political treatises and accounts of current events during the era of the American Revolution, Revere also reaped rewards for his engraving even as he educated the public and shaped popular opinion.