January 31

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

New-York Journal (January 28, 1773).

“Printed Proposals for taking in Subscriptions for Printing the ANSWER to De Laune’s Plea for the Non-Conformists.”

In addition to printing the New-York Journal, John Holt also sold imported books and printed and sold books and pamphlets.  Following the example of other printer-booksellers in the colonies, he inserted advertisements in his own newspapers.  Such was the case on January 28, 1773, when he advised readers of several pamphlets available at his printing office, including “A Memorial of the first Settlement of Plymouth in New-England.”

Holt also used that advertisement to pursue other business.  He planned to print “the ANSWER to De Laune’s Plea for the Non-Conformists,” a work that he indicated had been “lately reprinted.”  As part of that project, Holt distributed subscription notices that likely described the work, both its contents and the material aspects of the paper and type, and the conditions for subscribing, including prices and schedule for submitting payments.  He provided these “printed Proposals for taking in Subscriptions” to associates who assisted in recruiting customers who reserved copies in advance.  In some instances, subscribers made deposits as part of their commitment to purchasing a work once it went to press.  Holt’s associates may have distributed subscription notices in the form of handbills or pamphlets to friends, acquaintances, and customers or posted them in the form of broadsides in their shops.  Subscribers may have signed lists, perusing the names of other subscribers when they did so, or Holt’s associates may have recorded their names.  Holt’s reference to “printed Proposals for taking in Subscriptions” did not offer many particulars.

Like many broadsides, handbills, trade cards, and other advertising ephemera that circulated in eighteenth-century America, Holt’s “printed Proposals for taking in Subscriptions” were discarded when no longer of use.  Perhaps one or more copies have been preserved in research libraries or private collections, but they have not yet been cataloged.  For now (and probably forever), a newspaper advertisement that makes reference to a subscription notice that circulated in New York in the early 1770s constitutes the most extensive evidence of its existence.  As I have noted on several occasions, this suggests that early Americans encountered much more advertising, distributed via a variety of printed media, than historians previously realized … and much more than will ever be recovered.

December 10

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

New-York Journal (December 10, 1772).

“Christmas pieces.”

In December 1772, John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, ran an advertisement that listed a variety of stationery wares imported via the Lady Gage and other vessels recently arrived from London and now available for sale at his printing office.  Holt’s inventory included “ACCOUNT, and blank books of all sorts and sizes,” “Writing paper of all kinds from the lowest to the highest prices … with black, or gilt edges, or plain,” “Receipt books of all sorts and sizes, with and without clasps, some interleaved with blotting paper,” and “Very best red and black wax of all Sorts, and wafers in boxes.”

Given the time of the year, Holt stocked “Almanacks of several sorts for the Year 1773.”  In a nod to the holiday that would take place just a week before the new year, the printer also listed “Christmas pieces” among the pamphlets he carried.  He did not, however, suggest that any of his other merchandise, such as “Newberry’s children’s books of all sorts” and “Best Merry Andrew and Harry’s playing cards,” might make for good Christmas gifts.

That Holt even mentioned “Christmas pieces” in December did distinguish him from other merchants and shopkeepers.  In stark contrast to today’s association of Christmas with marketing and consumerism, colonizers did not make the same connections.  Only rarely did retailers attempt to make sale by encouraging consumers to purchase gifts.  The appropriately named Garrat Noel, a bookseller and stationer in New York, did so in December 1765 when he “offer[ed] to the Public, the following List of Books, as proper for Christmas Presents and New-Year’s Gifts.”  He confided that he set “extraordinary low Prices” as “an Encouragement to those who are willing to be generous on the Occasion.”  He described that holiday sale as “his annual Custom.”  Most other retailers did not adopt or expand that custom.  John Mein, a bookseller in Boston, marketed a “Large Assortment of entertaining and instructive Books for Children, very proper for Christmas and New Year’s Gifts,” the following year, but throughout the colonies such examples were rare.

Marketing and Christmas were not yet synonymous in eighteenth-century America, despite the efforts of a few booksellers to connect purchasing gifts, especially for children, and the holiday.  Holt’s “Christmas pieces” may very well have been devotional literature not intended as gifts.  The pages of colonial newspapers carried very different messages about Christmas and consumerism than newspapers, radios, televisions, and the internet would disseminate in December in later centurires.

December 1

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

New-York Journal (November 28, 1771).

Several Advertisements which came to late, will be inserted in our next.”

John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, devoted more space to advertising than to news in the November 28, 1771, edition.  In addition to the standard issue that consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half, Holt also distributed a two-page insert.  Of the eighteen columns spread over six pages, ten consisted of paid notices.  Yet Holt did not publish all of the advertisements submitted to his printing office.

In a brief note, the printer advised that “Several Advertisements which came to late, will be inserted in our next.”  Like other printers, Holt depended on advertising revenue to make publishing his newspaper a viable enterprise.  At the end of each issue, he listed the fees in the colophon:  “Advertisements of no more Length than Breadth are inserted for Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after, and larger Advertisements in the same Proportion.”  The notices that did appear in the November 28 edition represented significant revenue, but Holt did not want to risk alienating others who sent advertisements with the expectation they would run that week.  Some printers required advertisers to pay for their notices in advance, extending credit to subscribers but not to advertisers.  Holt did not include that provision in the colophon, but advertisers might have known of such a policy through other means, especially those who previously placed notices in the New-York Journal.  If payment arrived with advertisements received too late for publication in the current issue, then Holt certainly wanted to reassure those customers that they would indeed see their notices in print at the earliest possible opportunity.

The printer may have expected his notice to resonate with prospective advertisers as well.  He demonstrated that he published advertisements in a timely manner, but encouraged them to submit items as early as possible in order to increase the chances that they would appear in the issue currently in production.  Establishing such expectations helped in preventing frustration or misunderstandings, cultivating positive relationships with customers who might otherwise choose to place their notices in another newspaper published in New York.

May 19

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

New-York Journal (May 16, 1771).

Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business.”

When Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, discovered that that they had more content for the May 17, 1771, edition than space would usually allow, they opted to print several advertisements in the margins.  Although that format was not part of every issue of the Connecticut Journal or other eighteenth-century newspapers, printers and compositors did resort to placing advertisements in the margins fairly regularly.  On the previous day, for instance, John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, placed an advertisement in the right margin on the third page, running perpendicular to the rest of the text on that page.

A couple of features, however, distinguished Holt’s notice from the advertisements the Greens ran in the margins.  First, Holt’s advertisement concerned his own business.  “Whereas Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business,” Holt announced, “This is to desire the Customers for the said Paper, to let me know if any of them should fail of getting their Papers, till the present Carrier becomes acquainted with the Places where they are to be left.”  Holt placed his notice for the purpose of customer service, maintaining good relationships with subscribers following a change in personnel that potentially had an impact on whether or how quickly they received their newspaper.

Placing such a notice in the margin may have been quite intentional, a means of enhancing its visibility and increasing the likelihood that subscribers noticed it.  Unlike the Greens, Holt did distribute an additional half sheet for advertisements that did not fit in the standard issue.  He could have placed his own advertisement there, but doing so ran the risk of it getting separated from the rest of the issue.  In the margin of the third page, Holt’s notice became part of the standard four-page issue.  Its placement in the margin encouraged readers to peruse it in order to discover what kind of information received special treatment.

The format also indicated that Holt intended for his notice to appear in the margin from the start.  It ran in two lines that extended the length of the column.  The advertisements the Greens placed in the margins of the Connecticut Journal, on the other hand, were divided into several columns of a few lines each.  Those advertisements ran in a previous edition.  Rather than resetting type, the Greens made them fit in the margins by distributing what originally appeared in a single column across five short columns.  They did so out of necessity when they did not have sufficient space in the standard issue of their newspaper, whereas Holt did not transpose his notice from a traditional column to the margin.  From its conception, Holt had a different vision for his note to subscribers about disruptions in delivering the New-York Journal.

At a glance, advertisements printed in the margins of eighteenth-century newspapers look like they ended up there simply because compositors ran out of space.  Closer examination combined with knowledge of the production of newspapers, however, reveals the range of factors likely influenced decisions to place advertisements in the margins.  Different circumstances prompted the Greens to place advertisements in the margins than led Holt to do so.

March 21

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

New-York Journal (March 21, 1771).

“THE celebrated Sermon preached … on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. George Whitefield … By JOHN WESLEY.”

Word of George Whitefield’s death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, quickly spread through the colonies as well as across the Atlantic.  Newspapers in the colonies covered local reaction to the loss of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  In turn, they also reprinted coverage from one to another, further enhancing a sense of collective mourning.  It took longer to receive word of reactions in England, but by late March the colonial press carried those updates as well.  On March 18, 1771, the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy both carried an “Extract of a Letter from the Right Honourable the COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON,” Whitefield’s patron, “received a few Days ago by the December Packet.”  The countess mourned the “Faithful Minister of the Gospel.”

A few days later, residents of New York learned of another response to Whitefield’s death from across the Atlantic.  John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, announced that he would soon publish the “celebrated Sermon preached” by John Wesley, a leader of the Methodist movement within the Church of England, “on Sunday the 18th of November last, on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, at the Chapel in Tottenham Court-Road, and the Tabernacle near Moorfields.”  According to the Wesley Center Online, “The Sermon was at once published in London; and a reprint was issued in Dublin, also dated 1770.”  Commemorations of Whitefield’s death quickly resulted in commodification in England and Ireland, just as in the colonies.  That commodification continued when American printers came into possession of copies of the sermon.  Holt was the first advertise an American edition of Wesley’s sermon, but he was not the only one to take it to press.  John Fleeming in Boston also published the sermon.  Whitefield’s death was one of the most significant news events of 1770.  It prompted mourning on both sides of the Atlantic, but also presented opportunities for commodification.

January 28

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

Jan 28 1770 - 1:25:1770 New-York JournalFREEMAN’s NEW-YORK ALMANACK, For the Year 1770.”

In the final week of January 1770, John Holt continued in his efforts to rid himself of surplus copies of Freeman’s New-York Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1770. He did so much more vigorously than other printers who reduced the length and size of their advertisements significantly as January came to an end, perhaps an indication that Holt seriously miscalculated demand for Freeman’s New-York Almanack, printed far too many, and now had an excessive quantity on hand.

Three advertisements for the almanac appeared on the final page of the January 25 edition of the New-York Journal, Holt’s newspaper. He exercised his privilege as the printer to insert and arrange advertisements as he saw fit. The first of those notices was not at first glance an advertisement for the almanac. Instead, it appeared to be a public interest piece about “raising and preparing FINE FLAX” and the advantages of “farmers in North America” doing so. A separate paragraph at the end, just two lines preceded by a manicule, informed readers that “The whole process of raising and managing this flax is inserted in Freeman’s New-York Almanack for the year 1770.” That note appeared immediately above the most extensive of Holt’s advertisements for the almanac. He had previously run the notices about “FINE FLAX” and the almanac separately, sometimes even on different pages, and left it to readers to discover the synergy for themselves. A month into the new year, however, he no longer left it to prospective customers to make the connection on their own.

To further increase the likelihood that prospective customers would take note of the almanac, Holt placed a third advertisement next to the second one. Even if readers perused a page comprised almost entirely of advertisements so quickly that they did not notice how the “FINE FLAX” advertisement introduced an advertisement listing the contents of the almanac, it would have been difficult to skim all three columns without taking note of Freeman’s New-York Almanack.

Holt’s advertisements for the almanac accounted for a significant portion of the January 25 edition of the New-York Journal. Even taking into account the two-page supplement distributed with it, the entire issue consisted of only eighteen columns. The three advertisements for the almanac filled more than an entire column, displacing news items and editorials that Holt could have published instead. He apparently calculated that he included sufficient news between the standard issue and the supplement to satisfy subscribers, thus allowing him to aggressively advertise the almanac.

December 24

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

Dec 24 - 12:21:1769 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (December 21, 1769).

The whole process … is inserted in Freeman’s New-York Almanack.”

This notice appeared among the many advertisements that ran in December 21, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal. It extolled the virtues of experimenting with the “Method used in French Flanders, Of raising and preparing FINE FLAX, For making the finest of [textiles known as] Hollands, Lawns, Cambricks and Laces.” For the most part, it resembled an editorial more than an advertisement, but the final two lines made clear that John Holt, printer of both the New-York Journal and Freeman’s New-York Almanack for the Year of Our Lord 1770, inserted it to bolster his marketing efforts for the almanac. Holt advised prospective customers that “The whole process of raising and managing this flax is inserted in Freeman’s New-York Almanack for the year 1770.” This advertisement accounted for one of the most ingenious marketing strategies for almanacs deployed by printers in the 1760s.

Holt advertised the almanac elsewhere in the December 21 issue of the New-York Journal. An advertisement on the third page conformed to one of the standard formats for marketing almanacs. It announced that the almanac was “lately published” and provided an extensive list of the contents beyond the usual astronomical calculations. The almanac included all kinds of usual reference information, including a “Table of Coins, as they pass in England, New-York, Philadelphia, New-England, and Quebec,” a “List of Council, General Assembly, Judges and other Officers in New-York and New-Jersey,” and a “Table of Roads throughout all the English Dominions in America.” The overview of the almanac’s contents did not, however, list the “Method … Of raising and preparing FINE FLAX.” Holt reserved that for a separate advertisement that appeared on the following page.

The printer encouraged readers raise an prepare flax themselves, proclaiming it “the most profitable article of agriculture that ever was introduced in any country.” As an “inexhaustible source of wealth,” it accrued benefits to the farmer but also served the “national advantage.” In making this claim, Holt presented an opportunity for “gentlem[e]n and farmers in North America” to achieve “great profits,” boost local economies, and acquire new commercial advantages as disputes with Britain continued over trade imbalances and duties imposed on imported goods. In addition to encouraging “domestic manufactures,” many colonists advocated for greater diversification of the colonial economy by cultivating new commodities. In singing the praises of “raising and preparing FINE FLAX,” Holt added to the chorus while simultaneously leveraging that discourse to market Freeman’s New-York Almanack. This supplementary notice reinforced his other advertisement that took a more common approach to marketing almanacs in early America.

May 28

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

May 28 - 5:25:1769 New-York Journal Supplement
Supplement to the New-York Journal (May 25, 1769).

Family Physician, or Primitive Physic, just published.”

The supplement that accompanied the May 25, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal concluded with an advertisement for a handy reference manual, “THE Family Physician, or Primitive Physic.” Prospective customers could acquire copies “at the Printing-Office, at the Exchange.” In other words, John Holt, the printer and publisher of the New-York Journal, sold this book to supplement his income. In so doing, he competed with druggist Thomas Bridgen Atwood, who advertised elsewhere on the same page of the supplement. Atwood and Holt, however, provided different goods and services.

Atwood, who advertised regularly, sold a “general Assortment of Drugs and Medecines.” In addition to selling patent medicines and other remedies prepared in advance by others, he also compounded new prescriptions. Holt, on the other hand, offered a means for prospective customers to avoid consulting (and paying) “a Physician or Surgeon” or an apothecary. The book he peddled would allow buyers to act as doctor and pharmacist in treating “most kinds of common Diseases” since it contained “Receipts [recipes] for preparing and applying a great Number of Medicines.” Prospective customers did not need to worry about any lack of expertise or access to the necessary materials. Holt pledged that most of the “Receipts” were “simple” to prepare and their elements “easily procured.”

To underscore the utility of the book as a substitute for consulting physicians and apothecaries, Holt noted that consumers considered it “so generally useful and acceptable to the Public” that it had been reprinted thirteen times in the course of just a few years. For his final pitch, he proclaimed that “every Family, especially in the Country, ought certainly to be furnished with one of these Books.” In promoting this reference manual to prospective customers who lived outside of the city, he suggested that procuring a copy was not merely a means of saving money on consultations with physicians and druggists. The book provided greater access to the world of medicine, especially the most common and basic remedies, for those who did not have doctors and apothecaries residing in close proximity.

February 23

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

New-York Journal (February 23, 1769).

“The imposition laid upon us in the use of British paper.”

Although colonial printers liberally reprinted news items and editorial pieces from newspaper to newspaper, they only infrequently reprinted advertisements. After all, advertisements usually addressed local and regional audiences. In addition, paid notices were an important revenue stream that made colonial newspapers viable ventures. As a result, printers had few reasons to reprint advertisements from the newspapers they received from their counterparts in other cities and towns. On occasion, some printers did reprint advertisements that they considered either entertaining or instructive. Such was the case for an advertisement from the February 16, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal that John Holt reprinted just a week later in the February 23 edition of the New-York Journal.

William Bradford and Thomas Bradford had inserted an advertisement offering “Ready MONEY for CLEAN LINEN RAGGS” that Pennsylvania’s “Paper Manufactory” could make into paper, thus supporting the local economy, eliminating dependence on paper imported from England, and avoiding the duties imposed by the Townshend Act. The Bradfords conceived of saving rags as a political act rather than a mundane chore, charging “Ladies” to express “their love of liberty” by taking the lead in supporting this particular act of resistance to Parliament’s overreach.

Holt eliminated any mention of the Bradfords and their “Pennsylvania Writing PAPER,” considering them irrelevant to the lesson he wished to impress on readers of the New-York Journal. He reprinted the rest of the advertisement in its entirety, along with a brief introduction: “For the Encouragement of the Paper Manufactory, the following Advertisement is copied from the Pennsylvania Journal, and being equally applicable to this Province, is earnestly recommended to the Consideration of all who desire its Prosperity and wish to preserve its Freedom.” In making this statement, Holt doubled down on the political message advanced by the Bradfords.

But that was not all Holt did. After reprinting the original advertisement, he inserted an editorial of equal length. He lamented the “great sums of money that are continually sent out of America … for the single article of paper.” He expressed dismay that colonists had not done more to encourage paper production in New York; the industry would garner “a considerable and certain profit” as well as avoid “the unconstitutional imposition exacted upon us” by the duties on imported paper. Encouraging domestic manufacture of paper would “promote the good of our country, and preserve its right and liberties.” Finally, Holt made a bid for supporting paper production in New York rather than Philadelphia, another reason to remove any mention of the Bradfords and their goods from the advertisement. He complained that “[b]esides the money sent from this province to Europe for paper, considerable sums are sent for it to Philadelphia.” He believed that approximately twenty paper mills operated in that city and its environs, compared to only a couple in New York. Not only did Holt promote paper made in America, he wanted his own colony to benefit from its production rather than import from a neighboring province.

Although Holt described this piece as an advertisement and placed it among the paid notices, it might better be considered an editorial. The political valence of the original advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal merited reprinting in the New-York Journal, but Holt enhanced it with even more extensive commentary.

February 19

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

New-York Journal (February 16, 1769).

“We have therefore reprinted a few Hundreds.”

Throughout January and February each year the number and frequency of newspaper advertisements for almanacs tended to taper off, though some printers and booksellers did continue their efforts to sell surplus copies and turn expenses into revenues. Each day that passed meant that more of the contents, especially the astronomical calculations, became obsolete. Based on their advertisements, retailers expected that most colonists would purchase their almanacs before a new year commenced or very shortly after.

That made an advertisement in the February 16, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal rather unusual. Instead of announcing that he still had copies of “FREEMAN’s ALMANACK” for sale, John Holt announced that he planned to print more copies in order to meet the ongoing demand. “Having been much called for since the first Edition has been all sold off, And many People being not yet supplied,” Holt explained, “We have therefore reprinted a few Hundreds, which will be ready for delivery To-Morrow, at the usual Prices.” This raises several questions about the production and distribution of Freeman’s New-York Almanack. When did it sell out? How long did it take Holt to decide to issue a second edition? How many prospective customers, especially retailers who indicated they would purchase copies by the dozens, approached Holt about printing a second edition?

The entire enterprise seems suspicious. Even though the almanac included contents that retained their value throughout the year – such as “Times of the Courts in New-York, New-Jersey, Philadelphia, Connecticut, and Rhode-Island” – seven weeks of 1769 had elapsed. It seems strange that consumers voiced so much demand for this almanac at the same time that printers and booksellers ceased advertising almanacs and further attempts to sell any remainders. Did Holt actually issue a second edition? Or did he devise this announcement to make Freeman’s New-York Almanack seem like it had achieved extraordinary popularity in hopes of bamboozling readers into purchasing his surplus stock? Or could this notice have been his first attempt at marketing almanacs for the following year, planting the idea that Freeman’s New-York Almanack for 1769 was still in such high demand that prospective customers needed to acquire Freeman’s New-York Almanac for 1770 as soon as they saw it advertised in the fall? Holt’s advertisement deviates so significantly from others that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies that it merits skepticism.