September 12

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (September 12, 1771).


William Ibison offered his services as a broker to prospective clients who saw his advertisement in the September 12, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  He informed them that he established an “OFFICE OF INTELLIGENCE” on Front Street in Philadelphia.  At that time, he could provide information about “Boys to go Apprentices to different Trades,” “A Number of Houses” for sale “in this City and the Suburbs,” and “Merchandize of all Kinds.”

Realizing that some readers might not have been familiar with the work of a broker or, as Ibison called himself, an “Intelligencer,” he offered an overview of his services.  For a small fee, he collected information about goods for sale from “Merchants, Masters of Vessels, or others,” and then introduced them to prospective buyers.  He also facilitated selling houses and ships, renting lodgings and shops, and selling indentured servants and enslaved laborers.  In addition, Ibison oversaw loans and investments, placed men and women seeking work into jobs, and introduced masters and journeymen “in all Professions.”  For each of those services, he charged “moderate Commissions” or small fees.

Ibison presented his “OFFICE OF INTELLIGENCE” as the hub of an information network.  Some of that information he collected directly from clients, but he also relied on newspapers.  The broker announced his plan “to take in a News-Paper published in every capital Town on the Continent and settle a Correspondence there.”  Doing so would allow him to keep track of “current Prices of Goods in these Places” in order to pass along the intelligence to his clients.  Unlike his other services, he offered that information “gratis.”  He likely hoped that colonists who called on him for that information would be more likely to share information of their own or hire him for other ventures once they discovered how useful it could be to work with a broker who made it his business to collect, collate, and assess information from so many different sources.

The “Intelligencer” declared that “the Nature of the Office is such, the more it is encouraged the more useful it becomes to the Community.”  His services, he asserted, benefited more than just his clients.  That being the case, he “earnestly requests the Public’s Favours in general.”  Only in combining a growing clientele with correspondents and newspapers from other cities could his “OFFICE OF INTELLIGENCE” achieve its full potential in assisting others in acquiring whatever information they needed to successfully pursue their own endeavors.

August 7

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

Aug 7 - 8:4:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (August 4, 1768).

“Mr. Benjamin Leigh meets so great Encouragement in the Intelligence Office.”

In late July 1768, Benjamin Leigh began advertising an “Intelligence Office” at the Green Dragon Tavern that he opened “For the Benefit of the Public.” According to David Van Arsdale, “Intelligence offices in British North America shared many similarities with their English forebears.” Among them, they “continued operating in close relation to coffeehouses and centers of investment and commodity exchange, and continued providing employment services to the unemployed and seekers of their labor.”[1] In addition, Leigh listed a variety of other services associated with intelligence offices. He practiced discretion when facilitating transactions between those who had “money to lend” and others seeking to borrow. He also introduced those with “Merchandize Goods, Vessels, Lands, Negroes or Servants to sell,” rent, or charter with buyers or tenants. Beyond providing “employment services,” the men who operated intelligence offices were enmeshed in the slave trade, trucking in enslaved men, women, and children who were the objects rather than the beneficiaries of the assistance they provided in the world of colonial commerce.

Van Arsdale comments briefly on efforts to promote intelligence offices in the public prints, noting that Leigh and his counterparts in the colonies followed the example set in London by continuing to generate business through advertising. By the time Leigh informed readers of multiple newspapers published in Boston of his intelligence office at the Green Dragon Tavern, John Coghill Knapp had been advertising his services to residents of New York for several years. His frequent notices became a fixture in several newspapers. Van Arsdale also indicates that those who ran intelligence offices “often advertised … the success of English office as a way of establishing credibility and conjuring up business.”[2]

Leigh did not adopt that strategy in his own advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter when he first opened his business, but evidence of the success of his new business did appear in advertisements printed elsewhere on the page. An advertisement placed by his former partner testified to the success of Leigh’s new endeavor. Shortly after Leigh began inserting his own notices, John Coleman, the “Proprietor of the Brewery at the Green-Dragon,” published a separate advertisement informing current and prospective customers that because Leigh “meets with so great Encouragement in the Intelligence Office” Coleman now ran the brewery on his own. In the August 4 edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter, Coleman’s notice appeared one column to the right and just above Leigh’s advertisement. The proximity made it that much easier for readers to connect the messages delivered in each. Unlike many of his counterparts in the colonies, Leigh did not attempt to convince prospective clients that they should avail themselves of his services because intelligence offices on the other side of the Atlantic delivered results. Instead, another entrepreneur in Boston asserted the early success of Leigh’s enterprise, assuring potential clients that the system did indeed work in that busy port city.


[1] David Van Arsdale, The Poverty of Work: Selling Servant, Slave and Temporary Labor on the Free Market (Brill, 2016), 85.

[2] Van Arsdale, Poverty of Work, 86.

July 28

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

Jul 28 - 7:28:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (July 28, 1768).

“THERE is now opened … an Intelligence Office.”

In the summer of 1768 B. Leigh announced that he had opened “an Intelligence Office” at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Rather than selling goods, Leigh traded in all sorts of information concerning local commerce. He offered to match “any Merchant, Masters of Vessels or others” with buyers for “any sort of Merchandize Goods, Vessels, Lands, Negroes or Servants.” Similarly, for those with “Vessels to Charter” or “Houses, Lands, Shops, Rooms or Lodgings” to rent, Leigh assisted in identifying potential tenants. He also introduced clients interested in borrowing and lending money. His services in that regard included drawing up agreements for both parties to sign. Although Leigh trucked in information, he assured prospective clients of his discretion when it came to borrowing and lending money. Finally, the “Intelligencer” provided employment services, introducing master artisans seeking assistance in their workshops to journeymen who needed jobs. Two shillings was the going rate for information at Leigh’s “Intelligence Office.”

Leigh traded many types of information that often appeared in advertisements. Colonists regularly advertised consumer goods, real estate, and servants and slaves for sale. They advertised vessels to charter and property to rent. Employment advertisements appeared frequently in the pages of colonial newspapers. Less often, colonists advertised that they sought to borrow or lend money, often doing so anonymously with instructions to “enquire of the printer.” Leigh demonstrated sound judgment in promising “the secret kept” when he facilitated such transactions.

Yet the “Intelligencer” did more than merely replicate the advertising pages of Boston’s newspapers. Advertisements of all sorts achieved their purpose only when the right audience read and acted on them. Leigh’s services left less to chance. He actively worked to match clients with particular needs with other clients who had complementary needs. In that regard, the “Intelligence Office” went a step beyond the printing office. Printers disseminated information widely. They also responded to direct inquiries that resulted from “enquire of the printer” advertisements. They did not, however, sift and collate the information that passed through their shops and flowed off their presses to target directly those most interested in specific opportunities offered in advertisements. Leigh offered an improvement over advertising, one that potentially left less to chance. Still, it depended on two parties with corresponding needs simultaneously seeking his services. Intelligence offices more efficiently managed the flow of information, but advertising made information more widely available. Both methods had advantages and shortcomings in the world of colonial commerce.