March 31

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

Massachusetts Spy (March 28, 1771).

“SUBSCRIPTIONS for the SPY are also taken in by Mr. J. Larkin, chairmaker.”

Most newspapers published in Boston in the early 1770s did not have extensive colophons.  Consider, for example, those newspapers published at the time that Isaiah Thomas relaunched the Massachusetts Spy on March 7, 1771.  The colophon for the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter simply stated, “BOSTON: Printed by R. DRAPER.”  Similarly, the colophon for the Boston Evening-Post read, in its entirety, “BOSTON: Printed by T. and J. FLEET.”  The Boston-Gazette also had a short colophon, “Boston, Printed by EDES & GILL.”  Limited to “Printed by GREEN & RUSSELL,” the colophon for the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy did not even list the city.  All of those colophons appeared at the end of the final column on the last page.

In contrast, Thomas adopted a style much more often (but not universally) deployed in newspapers published in other cities and towns.  Extending across all four columns on the final page, it provided much more information about the Massachusetts Spy for readers, prospective subscribers and advertisers, and others who might have business with the printing office.  He included his location, “UNION-STREET, near the Market,” and listed the subscription price, “Six Shillings and Eight Pence” annually.  He also noted that he sought advertising, but did not specify the rates.  In addition, Thomas stated that “Articles of Intelligence … are thankfully received.”  In other words, he solicited contributions to print or reprint in the Spy.  Like other newspaper printers, he accepted job printing as a means of supplementing the revenues from subscriptions and advertising.  Thomas proclaimed that he could produce “Small Hand-Bills at an Hour’s Notice.”  He provided all of the services available in other printing offices.

Thomas included an additional enhancement in his colophon, one that not only did not appear in other newspapers published in Boston but also did not appear in other newspapers published throughout the colonies.  He listed local agents who accepted subscriptions for the Spy in towns beyond Boston: “Mr. J. Larkin, chairmaker, and Mr. W. Calder, painter, in Charlestown; Mr. J. Hillier, watch-maker, in Salem; Mr. B. Emerson, Bookseller, in Newbury-Port; and Mr. M. Belcher, in Bridgewater.”  That portion of the colophon reflected advertisements Thomas placed in other newspapers prior to relaunching the Spy.  It testified to a network the printer established for gathering sufficient subscribers to make his newspaper a viable enterprise.  The list also made it more convenient for prospective subscribers to order their copies of the Spy.  Those who lived in any of the towns listed in the colophon could deal directly with the local agents rather than dispatch letters to the printing office in Boston.

When it came to publishing a newspaper in Boston, Thomas was a newcomer in the early 1770s.  All of the other newspapers in circulation had been established for many years.  Perhaps the printers believed that their newspapers and their printing offices were so familiar to readers that they did not need extensive colophons providing a lot of information.  Thomas chose a different model, one much more common in newspapers published in other places.  In the process, he added his own innovation, listing local agents, in order to gain greater advantage of the portion of each issue that he surrendered to the colophon.

February 26

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

Essex Gazette (February 26, 1771).

“Subscriptions are taken in by I. Thomas, Printer and Publisher … M.J. Hiller, Watch-maker in Salem.”

As Isaiah Thomas prepared to relaunch the Massachusetts Spy after a brief hiatus, he placed advertisements in several newspapers published in Boston.  On February 18, 1771, he inserted a notice in all three newspapers published that day, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In that notice, he revised the plan of publication he previously outlined.  Instead of publishing the Spy on Tuesdays, the day after new editions of the Evening-Post, Gazette, and Gazette and Post-Boy, he moved the day to Thursdays in order to take advantage of the post arriving from Hartford with newspapers and letters on Wednesdays.  That would allow him to disseminate whatever news arrived from the west.

With his original plan, he would have been the only printer in Boston who circulated a newspaper in Boston on Tuesdays.  The revised plan, however, put him in direct competition with the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Despite that fact, the Gazette and News-Letter carried Thomas’s advertisement for the Spy on February 21.  That notice featured copy identical to the advertisements in the other three newspapers except for the additions of a headline that labeled it “ANOTHER THURDAY’S PAPER” and “Mr. M. Belcher, in Bridgwater” as a local agent who collected subscriptions on Thomas’s behalf.

Thomas did not confine his marketing of the revamped Spy to Boston’s newspapers.  The day after it first appeared, the printer inserted the advertisement in the Essex Gazette, published in Salem.  The notice about the Spy ran for several weeks in each newspaper that carried it, a strategy likely intended to create momentum in acquiring subscribers leading up to the relaunch on March 7.  Thomas carefully coordinated that advertising campaign.  Notices usually ran for three weeks for a set fee, with an additional charge for each subsequent insertion.  Thomas planned the appearance of his advertisements to occur in the three weeks prior to commencing publication of the improved Spy.  Those advertisements did not appear in other newspapers again on or after March 7.  Instead, new issues of the Spy did the work of advertising the newspaper as they circulated in Boston and beyond.

February 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 18, 1771).

“Massachusetts-Spy.”

Just over six months after the Massachusetts Spy commenced publication in July 1770, printer Isaiah Thomas temporarily suspended the newspaper in early February 1771.  Thomas warned both current and prospective subscribers of the hiatus in a series of notices in the Spy, pledging that he would relaunch the newspaper, with improvements, in March.  He hoped that the plans he outlined would attract new subscribers.

During the time that Thomas suspended publication, he turned to other newspapers to promote the Spy and seek subscribers.  On February 18, he placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In each, he addressed “all LOVERS of NEWS, POLITICKS, TRUE LIBERTY, and the FREEDOM of the PRESS.”  He also declared that the Spy was “open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None,” though Thomas became an increasingly vocal supporter of the patriot cause.  Indeed, four years later he fled to the relative safety of Worcester and set up his press there because he feared retribution from British officials angered by coverage in his newspaper if he remained in Boston.

Rather than focus on politics in this advertisement, however, Thomas described the plan for publishing the improved Spy.  He originally intended to publish it on Tuesdays, the day after the newspaper that carried his advertisement, but reported that he would instead publish it on Thursdays “at the Request of a great Number of the Subscribers.”  In appearing to give the customers what they wanted, Thomas further enhanced the Spy by gaining “the Advantage of inserting what News may be brought by the Hartford-Post, who arrives on Wednesday Evenings.”  Like other newspapers, the Spy featured extracts of letters and items reprinted directly from other newspapers.

Thomas also listed other details, including the size and appearance of the newspaper and subscription rates.  The revitalized Spy “will be printed on Demy Paper, every Number to contain four Pages large Folio, and every Page four columns.”  While a couple of newspapers published in other towns at that time featured four columns per page, none of those published in Boston did.  In this manner, Thomas sought to distinguish his newspaper from the local competition.  If printers mentioned subscriptions rates in print at all, they most often did so in the plan of publication.  Thomas set the price at six shillings and eight pence per year, with half to be paid on delivery of the first issue and the other half paid at the end of the year.  Like other printers, he extended credit to subscribers.

The enterprising printer also gave instructions for subscribing, inviting “All those who are kind enough to encourage this Undertaking … to give in their Names as soon as they conveniently can.”  Thomas accepted subscriptions himself, but he also specified several agents in Boston.  They included fellow booksellers and printers, though none of the printers of other newspapers published in Boston.  He also had local agents in nearby Charlestown as well as the more distant Salem.  Thomas would eventually collect the “Subscription Papers” from his various agents and collate the names into a single subscription list.

Thomas envisioned significant improvements to the Massachusetts Spy, but he needed the support of subscribers to put his plans into effect.  He first outlined new aspects of his newspaper in the Spy before it temporarily halted publication, but then he turned to advertising in other newspapers to seek subscribers (and presumably advertisers) and generate interest as the public anticipated publication of the new Massachusetts Spy.

January 28

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 28, 1771).

He shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences.”

Isaiah Thomas ranked among the most prominent and influential printers in eighteenth-century America.  Often described as a patriot printer, he consistently supported the American cause during the imperial crisis and war for independence.  The views expressed in his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, became such a thorn in the side of British officials in Boston that Thomas fled to Worcester for his own safety in the spring of 1775, continuing publication of the Massachusetts Spy there once he managed to acquire paper.  Famously, the inaugural issue published in that town featured Thomas’s firsthand account of the events at Concord and Lexington on April 19.   Among his many accomplishments, he wrote the monumental History of Printing in America (1810) and founded the American Antiquarian Society (1812).

Yet the Massachusetts Spy was not an immediate success when Thomas commenced publication in partnership with Zechariah Fowle in the summer of 1770.  They originally distributed three issues per week, but Thomas scaled back to two issues when the partnership dissolved after three months.  Thomas and Fowle had a particular readership in mind.  “The Massachusetts Spy,” Thomas explained, “was calculated to obtain subscriptions form mechanics, and other classes of people who had not much time to spare from business.”  The newspaper appeared on smaller sheets than others published in Boston in order that “the contents of the Spy might with convenience be read at a leisure moment.”[1]  The newspaper was slow to attract advertisers, an important source of revenue for any eighteenth-century newspaper.  Near the end of January, Thomas inserted a notice that the following issue “compleats six months since the first publication.”  Following that issue, “he shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences, which, from the Encouragement he has already been favoured with, he doubts not will be on the first Tuesday in March next, if not before.”  For some time, Thomas had been promising an “Enlargement” to larger sheets so the Massachusetts Spywould more closely resemble other newspapers published in Boston.  Thomas suspended the newspaper for five weeks, resuming publication of the “Enlargement” on March 7.

Thomas commented on subscription numbers in both his notice in the January 28 edition and the History of Printing in America.  In the notice, he pledged that he would “begin the Enlargement as soon as ever eight hundred subscribers appears.”  The Massachusetts Spy had five hundred subscribers at the time, making Thomas’s goal look ambitious.  Whether or not he achieved the prescribed number of subscribers, Thomas did not mention when he relaunched the Massachusetts Spy (and reset the issue numbering to mark a new venture).  Decades later, he stated, “The majority of the customers for the former Spy preferred the way in which it had been published, and withdrew their subscriptions.”  The new Massachusetts Spy got off to a rocky start.  The number of subscribers dropped to two hundred, “but after the first week they increased daily, and in the course of two years the subscription list was larger than that of any other newspaper printed in New England.”[2]

Thomas did not mention, however, that the number of advertisers increased as well.  Within six months, the number of advertisements in the Massachusetts Spy rivaled the paid notices inserted in other newspapers published in Boston.  The original publication limped along with few advertisements to support its operations, but the “Enlargement” attracted new readers and with them came new advertisers and greater revenues.

**********

[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 265.

[2] Thomas, History of Printing, 266.

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.

October 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 13, 1770).

“Printed and sold by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS, at the new Printing Office.”

In the middle of July 1770, Isaiah Thomas distributed a preliminary issue of the Massachusetts Spy to announce that he would commence publishing that new newspaper in two weeks.  He sought subscribers and advertisers to make it a viable endeavor.  Three weeks passed before the next issue appeared, but after that Thomas distributed new editions of the newspaper three times a week.  Many factors could have accounted for the slight delay; attracting a sufficient number of subscribers may have been one of them.  The Massachusetts Spy continued on its thrice weekly publication schedule for just three months before Thomas scaled it back to only twice a week for three months and finally to once a week, the same schedule as most newspapers published in colonial America.

Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several other printers and their newspapers for readers in Boston and its hinterlands, including Thomas Fleet and John Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post, Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s Boston-Gazette, John Green and Joseph Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Each of those publications had served readers for many years, perhaps making it difficult for Thomas to convince subscribers and advertisers to take a chance on his new publication.  Throughout the first couple of months, few advertisements ran in the pages of the Massachusetts Spy.

In October 1770, however, more began to appear, though still a small number compared to how many advertisements filled the pages of other newspapers printed in Boston.  The October 13 edition, for instance, included four advertisements.  Gillam Bass advised the public that his shop had been “broke open … by some evil minded person or persons” who had stolen several items earlier in the week.  He offered a reward for information or the capture of the perpetrators.  Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles once again inserted their advertisement for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD” written by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet.  Another advertisement sought an apprentice “to a genteel business,” but did not provide much more information.  Anyone wishing to know more needed to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office.”  If Thomas had not placed this notice himself then he served as an information broker on behalf of the advertiser, not unlike newspaper printers throughout the colonies who frequently published advertisements that instructed interested parties to contact them to learn more.  Thomas and his partner, Zechariah Fowle, certainly placed the final advertisement for a religious tract that they printed and sold.  In addition to potentially yielding customers, this notice enlarged the advertising section of the Massachusetts Spy and may have made it seem more vibrant and robust to prospective advertisers contemplating whether placing a notice in that newspaper was a sound investment.

Thomas took advantage of his access to the press to run a newspaper advertisement for another branch of his printing business, a strategy frequently adopted by early American printers who published newspapers, sold books and pamphlets, did job printing, sold blanks, and pursued a variety of other related tasks in their printing offices.

August 21

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

Aug 21 - 8:21:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (August 21, 1770).

“A General Assortment of GROCERIES.”

Isaiah Thomas launched the Massachusetts Spy on July 17, 1770, with an issue that included the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A New PAPER of INTELLIGENCE” as well as several news items.  The “PROPOSALS” served as an advertisement for the newspaper, the only advertisement that appeared in “NUMB. I,” that first issue.  Thomas stated that he would publish the next issue two weeks later (but three times a week after that) and invited subscribers and advertisers to contact him.  Three weeks elapsed before the printer distributed the next edition, but after that he kept to the schedule he outlined in the “PROPOSALS.”

The first several issues, however, did not include advertisements.  Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with four other newspapers published in Boston, all of them established years earlier and familiar to the readers in the city and its hinterlands.  Prospective advertisers quite likely did not wish to invest in placing notices in the Massachusetts Spy until they saw what kind of reception it received among the public and got a better sense of its circulation.  It was not until “NUMB. 8,” the eighth issue, that advertisements other than the “PROPOSALS” ran in the Massachusetts Spy.  More than a month after Thomas solicited advertisements in the first issue, four of them ran on August 21, 1770.  Alexander Chamberlain, Jr., advertised groceries and housewares, while two citrus sellers at “the sign of the Dish of Lemons, in Marlborough-street” and “the Sign of the Basket of Lemons … in Middle-Street” competed for customers.  An anonymous “WET NURSE” offered her services, instructing prospective clients to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office, in Union-Street.”  Like other printers, Thomas disseminated additional information to readers who followed up on advertisements that ran in his newspaper.

In the colophon on the final page, Thomas reminded readers that he accepted “Subscriptions, Articles of Intelligence, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper.”  Having finally published these advertisements, he likely hoped that they would encourage more colonists to insert their own notices in his newspaper.  After all, advertising represented an important revenue stream for any printer.  Paid notices often made the difference between newspapers successfully turning a profit or not having sufficient resources to continue publication.

August 11

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

Aug 11 1770 - 8:11:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (August 11, 1770).

“BOSTON:  Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.”

When Isaiah Thomas published the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY” in July 1770, he included advertising among the many services that his new publication would provide.  “Those who chose to advertise herein,” he promised, “may depend on having their ADVERTISEMENTS inserted in a neat and conspicuous Manner, at the most reasonable rates.”  He also pledged to maintain an appropriate balance between advertising and news items, never publishing one the exclusion of the other:  “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness,” the Massachusetts Spy “will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.”  Advertising would not crowd out other “Intelligence,” but advertising also qualified as “Intelligence” since it delivered information to readers.

Advertising also constituted an important revenue stream for printers who published newspapers, one that Thomas did not manage to cultivate in the first days of the Massachusetts Spy.  The inaugural issue called on advertisers to submit their notices, but three weeks later when Thomas commenced thrice-weekly publication he did not yet have advertisements to insert alongside other “Intelligence.”  In the fourth issue, distributed on August 11, 1770, the only item that even resembled an advertisement was the colophon:  “BOSTON:  Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.”  Some printers used the colophon for more explicit descriptions of the goods and services they provided at the printing office, but Thomas opted for a streamlined format that was also popular among printers.

Thomas may have been frustrated but not surprised that residents of Boston did not submit advertisements as soon as he launched the Massachusetts Spy.  After all, the city was one of the busiest newspaper markets in the colonies when it came to the number of publications.  Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several well-established publications that regularly carried significant amounts of advertising, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly MercuryThe Boston Chronicle had recently folded, which may have prompted Thomas to believe there was room for a new newspaper in the city, but that publication never featured many advertisements, though in its later days that very well could have been a consequence of its strident Tory tone.  The Massachusetts Spy eventually became a successful newspaper that captured its share of the market for advertisements, but in its early days advertisers waited for the new newspaper to increase its circulation numbers before investing in inserting notices in it.

July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:17:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (July 17, 1770).

“PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY.”

Isaiah Thomas, now remembered as the renowned patriot printer who published The History of Printing in America in 1810 and founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, launched his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, on July 17, 1770.  The first issue, distributed free, began with an advertisement from the printer himself, the “PROPOSALS” that frequently inaugurated eighteenth-century newspapers.  The proposal included two parts, the “CONDITIONS” of publication and an address “TO THE PUBLIC” in which the printer outlined the purpose of the newspaper.

The first condition stated that the Massachusetts Spy “will be printed with a fair Type, upon good Paper manufactured in this Province.”  From the start Thomas took a political position.  The Townshend Acts imposed duties on imported paper and other goods, prompting a boycott among colonial merchants.  Although those duties, except for the one on tea, had been repealed recently, the nonimportation agreement still remained in effect in Boston.  Thomas made clear that his newspaper would encourage domestic manufactures, specifically “good Paper manufactured in this Province,” as an alternative to imported goods.

Unlike most newspapers that consisted of four pages created by printed two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half, the Massachusetts Spy originally consisted of only two pages per issue.  However, as Thomas explained in the second condition, the “Publication will be punctually every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”  The Boston Chronicle published two issues per week, on Mondays and Thursdays, but it folded in June 1770.  No newspaper in Boston published more than one issue a week at the time Thomas founded the Massachusetts Spy.  With three issues per week, Thomas provided six pages of news and advertising compared to only four pages for other newspapers.  Furthermore, he explained in the address that on two of those days “no News-Paper is published in this Town.”  As a result, his subscribers “will always have the most material of the News, which may from Time to Time arrive from Europe and from other Parts of this Continent, on the Day of its Arrival, or the next Day following, (Sundays excepted).”  This was a particular advantage to subscribers.  Thomas proclaimed that they would receive news “sooner through this Channel than any other.”  The frequency of publication more than made up for the smaller size of the Massachusetts Spy.

Yet Thomas already envisioned expanding the newspaper when circumstances demanded.  In the fifth condition he pledged that it “shall be enlarged to double the Size of the first Number,” the two-page issue in which the “PROPOSALS” appeared, “as Occasion may require, without any additional Expence to Subscribers.”  In other word, Thomas would issue supplements when breaking news or an abundance of advertisements made doing so necessary, a common practice among eighteenth-century printers.  Any additional pages were presented to subscribers free of charge.  Thomas also made promises concerning the balance of news and advertising.  In the address he stated, “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness, it will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.”  Thomas had no intention of allowing advertisements, often more lucrative for printers than subscriptions, crowd out the news, including “the freshest and choicest Intelligence from Europe, and the material Transactions of this Town and Province” as well as a “List of the Arrival and Departure of Ships and other Vessels” and a “List of Marriages and Deaths.”  Thomas welcomed advertisements “at the most Reasonable Rates,” but had no plans for the Massachusetts Spy to fill its pages almost entirely with advertising.

Thomas anticipated publishing the second issue two weeks later on July 31 “if a sufficient Number of Subscribers appear by that Time.”  It took an extra week for Thomas to issue “Number II” on August 7, but after that the Massachusetts Spy joined the ranks of the public prints in Boston.  Thomas continued publication until April 1775.  Shortly before the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, he fled to Worcester and took his press with him.  As an influential patriot printer, he feared British authorities and sought the safety of the smaller town in the countryside.  He revived the Massachusetts Spy in Worcester in May 1775, but the newspaper had its origins on July 17, 1770, in Boston.  The “PROPOSALS” for the newspaper, an extended advertisement, inaugurated the first issue.

Jul 17 - Page 1 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (July 17, 1770).

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.