April 15

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 13, 1772).

“Such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

John Simnet, a watchmaker, placed rather colorful newspaper advertisements over the course of several years in the late 1760s and 1770s, first in the New-Hampshire Gazette and later in newspapers published in New York.  During the time that he resided in New Hampshire, he engaged in nasty feud with a fellow watchmaker, Nathaniel Sheaff Griffith.  Having trained and worked in London, Simnet accused Griffith of not possessing the same level of skill and suggested that Griffith actually damaged the watches he attempted to repair.  In a series of advertisements, Simnet denigrated Griffith’s character, intellect, and skill.

That rivalry may have played a part in Simnet’s decision to relocate to New York.  He once again turned to the public prints to promote his business.  For a time, he focused primarily on his own credentials and expertise, but old habits died hard.  Simnet eventually found himself embroiled in another feud with a fellow watchmaker, though James Yeoman appears to have been the first to pursue their disagreement in print with an advertisement that seemed to critique Simnet’s credentials without naming him.  Given his personality, Simnet may have initiated the insults in person before the dispute moved into advertisements in the newspapers.  Regardless of who started it, Simnet had extensive experience demeaning a competitor in print.  In March 1772, he deployed some of the same strategies that he used against Griffith a few years earlier.

Even though he could not resist placing negative advertisements about Yeoman, Simnet may have learned from his experience in New Hampshire that consumers did not respond well to marketing campaigns that revolved entirely around disparaging others.  In his next advertisement, published in the April 13, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he returned to the kinds of appeals that he incorporated into his notices when he first arrived in New York.  He gave prospective customers a careful accounting of how much they could expect to pay for various goods and services, such as “a new Chain Six Shillings” and “the Price of joining a broken Spring or Chain Two Shillings.”  He also promoted his prices while offering a guarantee, stating that he set rates for “every particular Article in repairing, at HALF the Price charg’d by any other, and no future Expence while the Materials, that is, Wheels and Pinions will endure.”  Simnet declared that it was “beneath the Character of a qualified Workman, to extract an Annuity by repairing Watches over and over again.”  That may have been a subtle critique of his many competitors, but not a targeted attack on Yeoman or any other watchmaker in New York.  To draw customers to his shop, Simnet also offered “such Alterations which don’t engage much Time, GRATIS.”

Simnet has been a fascinating character to track over the past three years, in large part because he deviated so significantly from one of the standard advertising practices of the period.  He sometimes placed advertisements that vilified his rivals rather than focusing on his expertise and experience.  Yet Simnet did not always go negative.  He also published advertisements that incorporated the tone and appeals usually found in newspaper notices by artisans.  In some cases, he also crafted innovative appeals, including free services to entice prospective customers into his shop in hopes of establishing relationships with them.  As an advertiser, he covered a greater range of appeals, positive and negative, than just about anyone else marketing their goods and services in the colonies in the decade before the American Revolution.

Happy Birthday, Mathew Carey!

Though Benjamin Franklin is often considered the patron saint of American advertising in the popular press, I believe that his efforts pale in comparison to the contributions made by Mathew Carey (1760-1839) in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Franklin is rightly credited with experimenting with the appearance of newspaper advertising, mixing font styles and sizes in the advertisements that helped to make him a prosperous printer, but Mathew Carey introduced and popularized an even broader assortment of advertising innovations, ranging from inventive appeals that targeted potential consumers to a variety of new media to networks for effectively distributing advertising materials. In the process, his efforts played an important role in the development of American capitalism by enlarging markets for the materials sold by printers, booksellers, and publishers as well as a host of other goods marketed by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who eventually adopted many of Carey’s innovative advertising methods. Mathew Carey will probably never displace Benjamin Franklin as the founder of American advertising in the popular imagination, but scholars of early American history and culture should recognize his role as the most important leader in eighteenth-century advertising among the many other activities and accomplishments of his long career in business and public life.

mathew_carey_by_john_neagle_1825
Mathew Carey (January 28, 1760 – September 16, 1839). Portrait by John Neagle, 1825. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Carey’s efforts as an advertiser were enmeshed within transatlantic networks of print and commerce. Though he did not invent the advertising wrapper printed on blue paper that accompanied magazines in the eighteenth century, he effectively utilized this medium to an extent not previously seen in America, Ireland, or the English provinces outside of London. The wrappers distributed with his American Museum (1787-1792) comprised the most extensive collection of advertising associated with any magazine published in North America in the eighteenth century, both in terms of the numbers of advertisements and the diversity of occupations represented in those advertisements. In Carey’s hands, the American Museum became a vehicle for distributing advertising media: inserts that included trade cards, subscription notices, testimonials, and book catalogues in addition to the wrappers themselves.

Located at the hub of a network of printers and booksellers, Carey advocated the use of a variety of advertising materials, some for consumption by the general public and others for use exclusively within the book trade. Subscription notices and book catalogues, for instance, could stimulate demand among potential customers, but exchange catalogues were intended for printers and booksellers to manage their inventory and enlarge their markets by trading surplus copies of books, pamphlets, and other printed goods. Working with members of this network also facilitated placing advertisements for new publications in the most popular newspapers published in distant towns and cities.

Carey also participated in the development of advertising appeals designed to stimulate demand among consumers in eighteenth-century America. He targeted specific readers by stressing the refinement associated with some of his publications, while simultaneously speaking to general audiences by emphasizing the patriotism and virtue associated with purchasing either books about American history, especially the events of the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, or books published in America. In his advertising, Carey invoked a patriotic politics of consumption that suggested that the success of the republican experiment depended not only on virtuous activity in the realm of politics but also on the decisions consumers made in the marketplace.

For my money, Carey is indeed the father of American advertising.  Happy 262nd birthday, Mathew Carey!

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 19 (New Style) in 1749 (or January 8, 1748/49, Old Style).  It’s quite an historical coincidence that the three most significant printers in eighteenth-century America — Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and Mathew Carey — were all born in January.

isaiah_thomas1818
Isaiah Thomas (January 30, 1739 – April 4, 1831). American Antiquarian Society.

The Adverts 250 Project is possible in large part due to Thomas’s efforts to collect as much early American printed material as he could, originally to write his monumental History of Printing in America.  The newspapers, broadsides, books, almanacs, pamphlets, and other items he gathered in the process eventually became the initial collections of the American Antiquarian Society.  That institution’s ongoing mission to acquire at least one copy of every American imprint through 1876 has yielded an impressive collection of eighteenth-century advertising materials, including newspapers, magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, watch papers, book catalogs, subscription notices, broadsides, and a variety of other items.  Exploring the history of advertising in early America — indeed, exploring any topic related to the history, culture, and literature of early America at all — has been facilitated for more than two centuries by the vision of Isaiah Thomas and the dedication of the curators and other specialists at the American Antiquarian Society over the years.

Thomas’s connections to early American advertising were not limited to collecting and preserving the items created on American presses during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods.  Like Mathew Carey, he was at the hub of a network he cultivated for distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods — including advertising to stimulate demand for those items.  Sometimes this advertising was intended for dissemination to the general public (such as book catalogs and subscription notices), but other times it amounted to trade advertising (such as circular letters and exchange catalogs intended only for fellow printers, publishers, and booksellers).

Thomas also experimented with advertising on wrappers that accompanied his Worcester Magazine, though he acknowledged to subscribers that these wrappers were ancillary to the publication:  “The two outer leaves of each number are only a cover to the others, and when the volume is bound may be thrown aside, as not being a part of the Work.”[1]

jan-30-worcerster-magazine-april-1786
Detail of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Second Week of April, 1786).

Thomas’s patriotic commitment to freedom of the press played a significant role in his decision to develop advertising wrappers.  As Thomas relays in his History of Printing in America, he discontinued printing his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, after the state legislature passed a law that “laid a duty of two-thirds of a penny on newspapers, and a penny on almanacs, which were to be stamped.”  Such a move met with strong protest since it was too reminiscent of the Stamp Act imposed by the British two decades earlier, prompting the legislature to repeal it before it went into effect.  On its heels, however, “another act was passed, which imposed a duty on all advertisements inserted in the newspapers” printed in Massachusetts.  Thomas vehemently rejected this law as “an improper restraint on the press. He, therefore, discontinued the Spy during the period that this act was in force, which was two years. But he published as a substitute a periodical work, entitled ‘The Worcester Weekly Magazine,’ in octavo.”[2] This weekly magazine lasted for two years; Thomas discontinued it and once again began printing the Spy after the legislature repealed the objectionable act.

jan-30-advertising-wrapper-worcester-magazine-4th-week-may-1786
Third Page of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Fourth Week of May, 1786).

Isaiah Thomas was not interested in advertising for its own sake to the same extent as Mathew Carey, but his political concerns did help to shape the landscape of early American advertising.  Furthermore, his vision for collecting American printed material preserved a variety of advertising media for later generations to admire, analyze, ponder, and enjoy.  Happy 273rd birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

**********

[1] Isaiah Thomas, “To the CUSTOMERS for the WORCESTER MAGAZINE,” Worcester Magazine, wrapper, second week of April, 1786.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810), 267-268.

Happy Birthday, Mathew Carey!

Though Benjamin Franklin is often considered the patron saint of American advertising in the popular press, I believe that his efforts pale in comparison to the contributions made by Mathew Carey (1760-1839) in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Franklin is rightly credited with experimenting with the appearance of newspaper advertising, mixing font styles and sizes in the advertisements that helped to make him a prosperous printer, but Mathew Carey introduced and popularized an even broader assortment of advertising innovations, ranging from inventive appeals that targeted potential consumers to a variety of new media to networks for effectively distributing advertising materials. In the process, his efforts played an important role in the development of American capitalism by enlarging markets for the materials sold by printers, booksellers, and publishers as well as a host of other goods marketed by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who eventually adopted many of Carey’s innovative advertising methods. Mathew Carey will probably never displace Benjamin Franklin as the founder of American advertising in the popular imagination, but scholars of early American history and culture should recognize his role as the most important leader in eighteenth-century advertising among the many other activities and accomplishments of his long career in business and public life.

mathew_carey_by_john_neagle_1825
Mathew Carey (January 28, 1760 – September 16, 1839). Portrait by John Neagle, 1825. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Carey’s efforts as an advertiser were enmeshed within transatlantic networks of print and commerce. Though he did not invent the advertising wrapper printed on blue paper that accompanied magazines in the eighteenth century, he effectively utilized this medium to an extent not previously seen in America, Ireland, or the English provinces outside of London. The wrappers distributed with his American Museum (1787-1792) comprised the most extensive collection of advertising associated with any magazine published in North America in the eighteenth century, both in terms of the numbers of advertisements and the diversity of occupations represented in those advertisements. In Carey’s hands, the American Museum became a vehicle for distributing advertising media: inserts that included trade cards, subscription notices, testimonials, and book catalogues in addition to the wrappers themselves.

Located at the hub of a network of printers and booksellers, Carey advocated the use of a variety of advertising materials, some for consumption by the general public and others for use exclusively within the book trade. Subscription notices and book catalogues, for instance, could stimulate demand among potential customers, but exchange catalogues were intended for printers and booksellers to manage their inventory and enlarge their markets by trading surplus copies of books, pamphlets, and other printed goods. Working with members of this network also facilitated placing advertisements for new publications in the most popular newspapers published in distant towns and cities.

Carey also participated in the development of advertising appeals designed to stimulate demand among consumers in eighteenth-century America. He targeted specific readers by stressing the refinement associated with some of his publications, while simultaneously speaking to general audiences by emphasizing the patriotism and virtue associated with purchasing either books about American history, especially the events of the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, or books published in America. In his advertising, Carey invoked a patriotic politics of consumption that suggested that the success of the republican experiment depended not only on virtuous activity in the realm of politics but also on the decisions consumers made in the marketplace.

For my money, Carey is indeed the father of American advertising.  Happy 261st birthday, Mathew Carey!

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 19 (New Style) in 1749 (or January 8, 1748/49, Old Style).  It’s quite an historical coincidence that the three most significant printers in eighteenth-century America — Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and Mathew Carey — were all born in January.

isaiah_thomas1818
Isaiah Thomas (January 30, 1739 – April 4, 1831). American Antiquarian Society.

The Adverts 250 Project is possible in large part due to Thomas’s efforts to collect as much early American printed material as he could, originally to write his monumental History of Printing in America.  The newspapers, broadsides, books, almanacs, pamphlets, and other items he gathered in the process eventually became the initial collections of the American Antiquarian Society.  That institution’s ongoing mission to acquire at least one copy of every American imprint through 1876 has yielded an impressive collection of eighteenth-century advertising materials, including newspapers, magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, watch papers, book catalogs, subscription notices, broadsides, and a variety of other items.  Exploring the history of advertising in early America — indeed, exploring any topic related to the history, culture, and literature of early America at all — has been facilitated for more than two centuries by the vision of Isaiah Thomas and the dedication of the curators and other specialists at the American Antiquarian Society over the years.

Thomas’s connections to early American advertising were not limited to collecting and preserving the items created on American presses during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods.  Like Mathew Carey, he was at the hub of a network he cultivated for distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods — including advertising to stimulate demand for those items.  Sometimes this advertising was intended for dissemination to the general public (such as book catalogs and subscription notices), but other times it amounted to trade advertising (such as circular letters and exchange catalogs intended only for fellow printers, publishers, and booksellers).

Thomas also experimented with advertising on wrappers that accompanied his Worcester Magazine, though he acknowledged to subscribers that these wrappers were ancillary to the publication:  “The two outer leaves of each number are only a cover to the others, and when the volume is bound may be thrown aside, as not being a part of the Work.”[1]

jan-30-worcerster-magazine-april-1786
Detail of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Second Week of April, 1786).

Thomas’s patriotic commitment to freedom of the press played a significant role in his decision to develop advertising wrappers.  As Thomas relays in his History of Printing in America, he discontinued printing his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, after the state legislature passed a law that “laid a duty of two-thirds of a penny on newspapers, and a penny on almanacs, which were to be stamped.”  Such a move met with strong protest since it was too reminiscent of the Stamp Act imposed by the British two decades earlier, prompting the legislature to repeal it before it went into effect.  On its heels, however, “another act was passed, which imposed a duty on all advertisements inserted in the newspapers” printed in Massachusetts.  Thomas vehemently rejected this law as “an improper restraint on the press. He, therefore, discontinued the Spy during the period that this act was in force, which was two years. But he published as a substitute a periodical work, entitled ‘The Worcester Weekly Magazine,’ in octavo.”[2] This weekly magazine lasted for two years; Thomas discontinued it and once again began printing the Spy after the legislature repealed the objectionable act.

jan-30-advertising-wrapper-worcester-magazine-4th-week-may-1786
Third Page of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Fourth Week of May, 1786).

Isaiah Thomas was not interested in advertising for its own sake to the same extent as Mathew Carey, but his political concerns did help to shape the landscape of early American advertising.  Furthermore, his vision for collecting American printed material preserved a variety of advertising media for later generations to admire, analyze, ponder, and enjoy.  Happy 272nd birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

**********

[1] Isaiah Thomas, “To the CUSTOMERS for the WORCESTER MAGAZINE,” Worcester Magazine, wrapper, second week of April, 1786.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810), 267-268.

September 24

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (September 24, 1770).

“He has made a considerable Improvement in the Construction of those Shears.”

When he started a new business in 1770, Cornelius Atherton placed an advertisement to alert prospective customers.  He deployed several appeals to entice them to purchase the clothier’s shears that he manufactured.

Readers of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury learned that Atherton claimed his shears were “equal in Goodness to any imported, and are sold upon as good Terms.”   New York’s merchants had resumed trading with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic earlier in the year, following the repeal of most of the duties imposed on imported goods by the Townshend Acts.  Entrepreneurs like Atherton, however, did not surrender to the influx of manufactured goods from England, often perceived as being higher quality, but instead defended their role in the American marketplace.  A movement to encourage “domestic manufactures” accompanied the nonimportation agreements adopted in the late 1760s.  Atherton and others who made goods in the colonies heeded that call and then continued to promote their wares when trade resumed.  When it came to quality and price, Atherton proclaimed, his clothier’s shears could not be beat by imported alternatives.  He hoped that would be “an Inducement” to buy from him.

If that was not sufficient, Atherton offered another reason.  He devoted the second half of his advertisement to describing an innovation in the construction of his shears.  Emphasizing innovation was the most innovative part of his advertisement.  Atherton explained that he “has made a considerable Improvement in the Construction of these Shears, so that they may be taken a part with a Screw, to be ground without putting them out of their proper Order.”  This required “additional Workmanship” (that did not make the shears more expensive than imported ones), but resulted in “great Conveniency” when it came to maintenance and durability.  This innovative construction made Atherton’s shears “something higher than the Common.”  Such ingenuity merited attention from prospective customers.

In as short advertisement for clothier’s shears made in the colonies, Atherton brought together multiple marketing appeals.  He resorted to some of the most common, quality and price, but expressed them in comparison to imported alternatives.  In turn, this supported an implicit “Buy American” argument that would have been familiar to consumers in the late 1760s and early 1770s because it had been so frequently made, both implicitly and explicitly, in the public prints, including in advertisements.  Atherton may have considered the innovation in constructing his shears the most compelling of the appeals he presented to prospective customers.  That innovation contributed to quality and durability while also yielding greater convenience for his customers.

July 24

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

Jul 24 - 7:24:1770 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (July 24, 1770).

“An Exhibition of modern Books, by AUCTION.”

Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers and auctioneers in eighteenth-century America, toured New England in the summer of 1770.  Bell is widely recognized among historians of the book for his innovative marketing practices.  The tone and language in his advertisement in the July 7, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, however, seems rather bland compared to the flashy approach that eventually became the hallmark of Bell’s efforts to promote his books and auctions.  On the other hand, another advertisement in the Essex Gazette just a few weeks later hinted at the showmanship that Bell was in the process of developing and refining.

In announcing auctions that would take place at a tavern in Salem on three consecutive nights, Bell addressed prospective bidders as “the Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.”  Deploying such salutations eventually became a trademark of his newspaper advertisements, broadsides, and book catalogs.  The advertisement in the Essex Gazette gave customers a glimpse of the personality they would encounter at the auction.  Bell described each auction as “an Exhibition of modern Books” and proclaimed that one each evening “there will really exist an Opportunity of purchasing Books cheap.”  He seemed to take readers into his confidence, offering assurances that the prospect of inexpensive books was more than just bluster to lure them to the auction.

In the same advertisement, Bell sought to incite interest in another trilogy of auctions.  “An Opportunity similar to the above,” he declared, “will revolve at the Town of NEWBURY-PORT.”  Readers of the Essex Gazette who could not attend any of the book auctions in Salem had another chance to get good bargains while mingling with other “Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.”  Like other itinerants who announced their visits in the public prints, whether peddlers or performers, Bell made clear that he would be in town for a limited time only.  He advised that “the Public may be certain that the Auctionier’s Stay in those Towns will not exceed the Time limited as above.”  Bell would be in Salem for just three nights and then in Newburyport for three more nights before moving along to his next destination.

Compared to his recent notice in the Providence Gazette, the advertisement Bell placed in the Essex Gazette much more resembled the style of promotion that made him famous in the eighteenth century and infamous in the history of the book.  His lively language suggested that his auctions would be more than the usual sort of sale.  They would be events that readers would not want to miss.

Happy Birthday, Mathew Carey!

Though Benjamin Franklin is often considered the patron saint of American advertising in the popular press, I believe that his efforts pale in comparison to the contributions made by Mathew Carey (1760-1839) in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Franklin is rightly credited with experimenting with the appearance of newspaper advertising, mixing font styles and sizes in the advertisements that helped to make him a prosperous printer, but Mathew Carey introduced and popularized an even broader assortment of advertising innovations, ranging from inventive appeals that targeted potential consumers to a variety of new media to networks for effectively distributing advertising materials. In the process, his efforts played an important role in the development of American capitalism by enlarging markets for the materials sold by printers, booksellers, and publishers as well as a host of other goods marketed by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans who eventually adopted many of Carey’s innovative advertising methods. Mathew Carey will probably never displace Benjamin Franklin as the founder of American advertising in the popular imagination, but scholars of early American history and culture should recognize his role as the most important leader in eighteenth-century advertising among the many other activities and accomplishments of his long career in business and public life.

mathew_carey_by_john_neagle_1825
Mathew Carey (January 28, 1760 – September 16, 1839). Portrait by John Neagle, 1825. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Carey’s efforts as an advertiser were enmeshed within transatlantic networks of print and commerce. Though he did not invent the advertising wrapper printed on blue paper that accompanied magazines in the eighteenth century, he effectively utilized this medium to an extent not previously seen in America, Ireland, or the English provinces outside of London. The wrappers distributed with his American Museum (1787-1792) comprised the most extensive collection of advertising associated with any magazine published in North America in the eighteenth century, both in terms of the numbers of advertisements and the diversity of occupations represented in those advertisements. In Carey’s hands, the American Museum became a vehicle for distributing advertising media: inserts that included trade cards, subscription notices, testimonials, and book catalogues in addition to the wrappers themselves.

Located at the hub of a network of printers and booksellers, Carey advocated the use of a variety of advertising materials, some for consumption by the general public and others for use exclusively within the book trade. Subscription notices and book catalogues, for instance, could stimulate demand among potential customers, but exchange catalogues were intended for printers and booksellers to manage their inventory and enlarge their markets by trading surplus copies of books, pamphlets, and other printed goods. Working with members of this network also facilitated placing advertisements for new publications in the most popular newspapers published in distant towns and cities.

Carey also participated in the development of advertising appeals designed to stimulate demand among consumers in eighteenth-century America. He targeted specific readers by stressing the refinement associated with some of his publications, while simultaneously speaking to general audiences by emphasizing the patriotism and virtue associated with purchasing either books about American history, especially the events of the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, or books published in America. In his advertising, Carey invoked a patriotic politics of consumption that suggested that the success of the republican experiment depended not only on virtuous activity in the realm of politics but also on the decisions consumers made in the marketplace.

For my money, Carey is indeed the father of American advertising.  Happy 260th birthday, Mathew Carey!

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 19 (New Style) in 1749 (or January 8, 1748/49, Old Style). It’s quite an historical coincidence that the three most significant printers in eighteenth-century America — Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and Mathew Carey — were all born in January.

isaiah_thomas1818
Isaiah Thomas (January 30, 1739 – April 4, 1831). American Antiquarian Society.

The Adverts 250 Project is possible in large part due to Thomas’s efforts to collect as much early American printed material as he could, originally to write his monumental History of Printing in America.  The newspapers, broadsides, books, almanacs, pamphlets, and other items he gathered in the process eventually became the initial collections of the American Antiquarian Society.  That institution’s ongoing mission to acquire at least one copy of every American imprint through 1876 has yielded an impressive collection of eighteenth-century advertising materials, including newspapers, magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, watch papers, book catalogs, subscription notices, broadsides, and a variety of other items.  Exploring the history of advertising in early America — indeed, exploring any topic related to the history, culture, and literature of early America at all — has been facilitated for more than two centuries by the vision of Isaiah Thomas and the dedication of the curators and other specialists at the American Antiquarian Society over the years.

Thomas’s connections to early American advertising were not limited to collecting and preserving the items created on American presses during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods.  Like Mathew Carey, he was at the hub of a network he cultivated for distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods — including advertising to stimulate demand for those items.  Sometimes this advertising was intended for dissemination to the general public (such as book catalogs and subscription notices), but other times it amounted to trade advertising (such as circular letters and exchange catalogs intended only for fellow printers, publishers, and booksellers).

Thomas also experimented with advertising on wrappers that accompanied his Worcester Magazine, though he acknowledged to subscribers that these wrappers were ancillary to the publication:  “The two outer leaves of each number are only a cover to the others, and when the volume is bound may be thrown aside, as not being a part of the Work.”[1]

jan-30-worcerster-magazine-april-1786
Detail of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Second Week of April, 1786).

Thomas’s patriotic commitment to freedom of the press played a significant role in his decision to develop advertising wrappers.  As Thomas relays in his History of Printing in America, he discontinued printing his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, after the state legislature passed a law that “laid a duty of two-thirds of a penny on newspapers, and a penny on almanacs, which were to be stamped.”  Such a move met with strong protest since it was too reminiscent of the Stamp Act imposed by the British two decades earlier, prompting the legislature to repeal it before it went into effect.  On its heels, however, “another act was passed, which imposed a duty on all advertisements inserted in the newspapers” printed in Massachusetts.  Thomas vehemently rejected this law as “an improper restraint on the press. He, therefore, discontinued the Spy during the period that this act was in force, which was two years. But he published as a substitute a periodical work, entitled ‘The Worcester Weekly Magazine,’ in octavo.”[2] This weekly magazine lasted for two years; Thomas discontinued it and once again began printing the Spy after the legislature repealed the objectionable act.

jan-30-advertising-wrapper-worcester-magazine-4th-week-may-1786
Third Page of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Fourth Week of May, 1786).

Isaiah Thomas was not interested in advertising for its own sake to the same extent as Mathew Carey, but his political concerns did help to shape the landscape of early American advertising.  Furthermore, his vision for collecting American printed material preserved a variety of advertising media for later generations to admire, analyze, ponder, and enjoy.  Happy 271st birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

**********

[1] Isaiah Thomas, “To the CUSTOMERS for the WORCESTER MAGAZINE,” Worcester Magazine, wrapper, second week of April, 1786.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810), 267-268.

February 4

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

Providence Gazette (February 4, 1769).

“They CAN, DO, and WILL, sell as cheap for Cash as any Merchant or Shop-keeper in New-England.”

In their advertisement in the February 4, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, Ebenezer Thompson and Company deployed two of the most popular advertising appeals of the eighteenth century. They promoted price and consumer choice.

The partners informed prospective customers, especially their “COUNTRY FRIENDS” who might not spend enough time in Providence to go from store to store comparison shopping, that “their Goods are always laid in on the very best Terms.” That prompted Thompson and Company to make an extraordinary claim: “they CAN, DO, and WILL, sell as cheap for Cash as any Merchant or Shop-keeper in New-England.” If that was indeed the case, then there was no need to do any comparison shopping! Advertisers usually wrote the copy but left it to compositors to determine the format of their advertisements, but the assertion that Thompson and Company “CAN, DO, and WILL” sell their goods for prices as low as any to be found in New England suggests that they may have provided some instructions about the appearance of their notice.

In addition to price, Thompson and Company also promised an array of choices for their customers. They stocked a “COMPLEAT and UNIVERSAL Assortment of European and East-India GOODS.” Many advertisers would have considered such language sufficient, but Thompson and Company further elaborated. Their inventory consisted of “a GREAT VARIETY of Articles,” so many that they were “too numerous to be comprized within the Limits of an Advertisement.” That was a clever approach, especially considering that many advertisers did attempt to list as many items as possible in their newspaper advertisements. Some notices included dozens, scores, or even hundreds of items, extending as much as an entire column or, in some cases, filling an entire page. Readers certainly would have been familiar with such advertisements, making it all the more compelling that Thompson and Company proclaimed that even making such an attempt was futile.

Although Thompson and Company selected two of the most common advertising appeals of the era, they added an innovative touch to both. They did not merely reiterate the standard language of price and choice found in so many advertisements in newspapers printed throughout the colonies. Instead, they started with strategies that advertisers already considered effective and reworked them to make them even more enticing for prospective customers.