July 16

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

Jul 16 - 7:16:1770 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (July 16, 1770).

“A NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON.”

The commemoration and commodification of the events of the American Revolution began years before shots were fired at Concord and Lexington.  Beginning in 1767, colonists marked the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act with celebrations and toasts.  Within weeks of the Boston Massacre in 1770, Paul Revere advertised and sold prints depicting the event, followed soon after by Henry Pelham.  A few months later, John Kneeland and Seth Adams announced the imminent publication of “A NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON, perpetrated in the Evening of the 5th of March 1770, by Soldiers of the 29th Regiment; which with the 14th Regiment were then Quartered there.”  The volume also included “some OBSERVATIONS on the STATE OF THINGS prior to that CATASTROPHE.”

This reprint “from the London Edition” was a departure for Kneeland and Adams.  In his monumental History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas remarked that the “principal work of Kneeland & Adams was psalters, spelling books, and psalm books, for booksellers.”[1]  What prompted Kneeland and Adams to reprint this particular book?  Were their motivations primarily pecuniary or political or both?  Thomas, often quick to comment of the politics of his fellow printers, did not note that either printer was known for promoting the patriot cause, but that did not necessarily mean that politics did not play a role in their decision to produce and market this “NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE.”  Financial interests almost certainly influenced them as well.  If Thomas did not recognize their press as one that advanced the patriot cause, then it seems unlikely that they would have printed the “NARRATIVE” solely as an act of commemoration and instruction for their fellow colonists.  Kneeland and Adams spotted an opportunity to make money in the commercial marketplace.  Regardless of their motivations, publishing this volume contributed to the discourse in the marketplace of ideas.  As printers, they helped shape public sentiment.

Thomas Fleet, Jr., and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, also played a role in making the “NARRATIVE” available to the public.  Their newspaper not only carried Kneeland and Adams’s advertisement but also gave it a prominent place.  The advertisements for the July 16 edition commenced with a notice calling on “All Persons indebted for this Paper” to settle accounts followed immediately by the advertisement for the “NARRATIVE.”  Such placement increased the likelihood that readers would take note of the advertisement if they read through the news and then opted to skip the paid notices.  A note that “Advertisements omitted shall be on our next” indicates that the Fleets made choices about which advertisements to include.  Maybe they selected this advertisement because it was timely, with publication scheduled for “Next WEDNESDAY,” or as a courtesy to fellow printers, but their own feelings about the Boston Massacre may have part of their decision.  Thomas described the Fleets as “good citizens” and lauded the “impartiality with which the paper was conducted, in those most critical times, the authenticity of its news, and the judicious selections of its publishers.”[2]  Even if they were not explicitly promoting the patriot cause, the Fleets likely saw the dissemination of additional information about the Boston Massacre as an important service.

Historians debate whether eighteenth-century printers intentionally sought to shape public opinion in the era of the American Revolution or whether they aimed to earn their living by printing political tracts, prints, and other items.  One does not necessarily exclude the other.  Regardless of the motivations of the printers, the publication of these materials and the advertisements that promoted them contributed to the debates of the period.

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[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), 148.

[2] Thomas, History of Printing, 143.

November 28

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

Nov 28 - 11:28:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (November 28, 1770).

“Low’s Almanack, for 1770, is to be sold by the Printer hereof.”

With a little over a month until the new year arrived, the number of advertisements for almanacs in colonial newspapers increased in late November 1769. Some printers and booksellers published elaborate notices, including a full-page advertisement for the New-England Almanack in the Providence Gazette, but others opted instead for brief notices. Samuel Hall, printer of the Essex Gazette, chose the second method. The final advertisement in the November 28, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette announced that “Low’s Almanack, for 1770, is to be sold by the Printer hereof.”

By “Low’s Almanack” Hall meant An Astronomical Diary: or, Almanack for the year of Christian Æra, 1770 … Calculated for the Meridian of Boston, in New-England … but May Indifferently Serve Any Part of New-England, written by Nathanael Low, a “Student in Physic.” Hall did not produce the almanac in his printing office. The imprint indicated that it was “Printed and sold by Kneeland & Adams, in Milk-Street” in Boston, yet “Sold also by the printers and booksellers.” Hall served as a local agent and retailer for “Low’s Almanack, for 1770.”

Kneeland and Adams pursued their own advertising campaign, inserting a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on October 26 to inform prospective customers that the almanac would soon be available. “TO-MORROW will be Published,” they proclaimed, “An ASTRONOMICAL DIARY; Or, ALMANACK … By NATHANIEL LOW.” Their advertisement provided a preview of the contents as a means of enticing consumers to choose this almanac rather than the any of the others published in Boston. It contained the usual astronomical information, such as “Sun and Moon’s rising and setting” and “Moon’s Place,” as well as guides to “Roads, with the best Stages or Houses to put up at” and “Courts in the four New-England Governments” and other useful reference information for the region. Other items were calculated to be both “very entertaining and instructive,” such as a “Dialogue between Heraclitus and Democritus, suited as near as possible to the Complexion of the Times” and a “brief Essay on Comets.” Yet Kneeland and Adams promised even more, concluding their list with a promise of “many other Things useful and entertaining” in the almanac.

Hall did not go to nearly the same lengths to promote “Low’s Almanack, for 1770” in his newspaper. Given the networks of exchange among newspaper printers, he would have seen advertisements for other almanacs, even if he did not happen to notice Kneeland and Adams’s advertisement for this particular almanac. In general, advertisements in the Essex Gazette, whether inserted by the printer or placed by others, tended to be streamlined compared to many that appeared in other newspapers. This may have made them easier for readers to navigate, but it limited the amount of information available to consumers.

September 29

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

Sep 29 - 9:29:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter Postscript
Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 29, 1768).

The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury.”

Less than three weeks after Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Journal, first promoted a pamphlet about the “LIFE, and abominable THEFTS, of the notorious Isaac Frasier,” who had just been executed in Fairfield, printers in Boston ran an advertisement for the same pamphlet in the Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter. It announced that the pamphlet was “JUST RE-PRINTED and Sold at Kneeland & Adams’s Printing Office in Milk-Street; and R. Draper’s Office in Newbury Street.” The Boston printers most likely sold a second edition produced by the Greens rather than one they printed themselves.

Just as the Greens had attempted to draw on popular interest in an event that had just occurred in their colony, the Boston printers adapted the advertisement to focus on a local connection. The contents of the pamphlet were certainly provocative already: an account given by the Frasier “(under Sentence of Death for Burglary) penned from his own Mouth, signed by him, a few Days before his Execution: With his dying SPEECH.” Yet some of the details were especially relevant to readers of the Boston Weekly News-Letter. The advertisement in that newspaper specified that “The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury, and other Places in Roxbury, Boston, &c.” Furthermore, the contents of the pamphlet answered lingering questions about crimes that had occurred in Massachusetts. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Early American Criminals, the pamphlet recorded more than fifty thefts and burglaries committed by Frasier as he “toured all over New England and into New York, covering hundreds of miles at a time.” As far as his thefts in Roxbury, Boston, and other local towns were concerned, the advertisement stated, “The Articles that he stole are mentioned very particularly at his Desire, that the Owners may know the Articles taken by him, in order to exculpate others.” The pamphlet presented information about those thefts that would not otherwise appear in news coverage in the public prints. It offered an exclusive look at Frasier’s crime spree.

The printer-booksellers who sold the “brief Account” in Boston encouraged readers to simultaneously marvel at Frasier’s audacity and condemn his crimes. They transformed his narrative of his thefts and his “dying SPEECH” into a form of entertainment. In their promotion, they heralded the genre of true crime and its power to provoke interest and sell merchandise.