What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SCHEME of a LOTTERY.”
Colonists in Rhode Island held lotteries to fund a variety of public works projects in the early 1770s. After receiving approval from the colonial legislature, the sponsors kept readers informed about the progress on those projects and promoted the lotteries via newspaper advertisements. The November 23, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette, for instance, contained four advertisements about lotteries conducted to fund various projects, including “repairing and rebuilding the BRIDGE over Pawtucket River,” “reparing the ROAD … in I,” “purchasing a PARSONAGE, for the Use of the PRESBYTERIAN or CONGREGATIONAL SOCIETY, in the Town of Providence,” and “building a STEEPLE to the Church in Providence, and purchasing a CLOCK to be affixed therein, for the Use of the Public.” A fifth notice indicated that the “Managers of the Warwick Bridge Lottery” would draw numbers on December 6.
In three of those advertisements, the sponsors explained the benefits of the projects to encourage colonists to participate. The directors of the lottery for Whipple’s Bridge noted that “keeping of Bridges in Repair” served “the Good of the Public in general.” Residents of Providence, they continued, “more especially” had an interest in maintaining this particular bridge because “the Road over said Bridge leads directly to several large Towns in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay.” Similarly, the directors of the lottery to fund repairs to the road in North Providence hoped to “meet with every Encouragement in the Sale of their Tickets” because “this Road leads directly through the Colony.” In both instances, the sponsors asked colonists to do their part in supporting infrastructure that facilitated travel and the circulation of information and goods throughout the colony and beyond.
The General Assembly appointed John Smith, a merchant, to serve as manager of the lottery for building a steeple and adorning it with a clock. In the advertisement outlining the “SCHEME of a LOTTERY” to support those projects, Smith opined that it was “universally allowed, that Steeples are in a particular Manner ornamental to a Town,” but that was not the only reason colonists, even those not affiliated with that particular church, should support the lottery. “Reasons of a more important Nature,” he declared, “induce him to believe, that the Public-spirited, of all Denominations, will afford it every Assistance” … because “the former Church Steeple … was serviceable to Navigation as a Landmark.” All residents of Providence would benefit from a new steeple, just as they would benefit from a town clock. “The Utility of a Town-Clock,” Smith declared, “must appear obvious to every one.” That being the case, he decided not to “offend the public Understanding, by offering Arguments to evidence its Usefulness.” Smith believed that colonists needed less convincing about that part of the project.
The sponsors of the lotteries encouraged readers to follow their progress, noting that “the Prizes will be Published in the Providence Gazette, and punctually paid off.” They also cautioned that any prizes not claimed within a specified period, six months or one year depending on the lottery, “will be deemed generously given to the Public” for the further maintenance of the projects they funded.