June 12

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (June 10, 1771).

“Sold as low as at any Store or Shop in Town.”

Advertisements for consumer goods in eighteenth-century newspapers frequently included appeals to price.  In the June 10, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, for instance, William Bant informed his “Friends and Customers” that he sold a “General Assortment of English and India GOODS … at the very lowest Rates.”  Similarly, Lewis Deblois sold cutlery, hardware, and other goods “at the very lowest Price.”  Joshua Isaacs set “reasonable Terms” for the imported goods he sold.  In many instances, advertisers made only brief reference to the price of their merchandise, but some, like Joshua Gardner, underscored price in their attempts to entice customers.

Gardner stocked a “fine Assortment of English Goods” that he acquired from London, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, and other towns.  After listing several items, he declared that “the above-mention’d Goods are purchased upon the best Ter[m]s.”  In turn, he passed along the savings to his customers, pledging that everything in his inventory “shall be Sold as low as at any Store or Shop in Town.”  Prospective customers, he proclaimed, would not find better bargains anywhere in Boston.

In addition, Gardner inserted a special “NOTE” to retailers, informing “THOSE Persons who purchase to Sell again” that they “may be supply’d by the Piece, Half-piece or Quarter-piece, Dozen, Half-dozen or Quarter-dozen, at the same advance as if they bought large Quantities.”  Many wholesalers promoted discounts for purchasing in volume in their advertisements, but Gardner went beyond that deal.  He offered retailers an opportunity to purchase in smaller quantities at the same rates as if they placed larger orders.  Such an offer distinguished him among wholesalers who advertised in Boston, perhaps making his wares more attractive to shopkeepers in the city and surrounding towns.

Although many advertisers resorted to formulaic language when making appeals to price, others experimented with both the rates they charged and how they described prices to prospective customers.  Gardner devoted as much space in his advertisement to discussing his prices as he did to listing his goods, making his notice unique among those inserted by Bant, Deblois, Isaacs, and many other merchants and shopkeepers.

May 22

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 20, 1771).

“A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons … at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”

Following the custom of the time, the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette arranged news accounts according to geography.  News from London (dated April 2), far away, came first, followed by news from other colonies.  The printers also selected updates from Newport (dated May 13) and Portsmouth (dated May 17), in that order, getting closer to their own city before inserting news from Boston (dated May 20).  The local news included a curious item: “A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons, Clouting Diapers, Dowlasses, Huckabuck, Irish Linnens, Silk and Linnen Handkerchiefs, may be had very cheap at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane, if apply’d for this Day.”  Rather than news, it read like an advertisement that belonged elsewhere in the newspaper.

The same item appeared among the news dated “BOSTON, May 20” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and in the Boston Evening-Post.  All three newspapers printed in Boston on that day included what otherwise looked like an advertisement among the local news.  In each case, the printers reprinted some items from a supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published on May 16.  They also inserted new items, varying the order.  In other words, a compositor did not set type from start to finish for content that first appeared elsewhere.  The printers of each newspaper made decisions about which items to include and in which order.  They all decided to include this advertisement among the local news.

Why?  Was it a favor for Joseph Russell, one of the proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  Russell was also a successful auctioneer who regularly advertised in several newspapers rather than restricting his marketing efforts to his own publication.  For instance, he placed an advertisement for an upcoming auction in the May 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  He gave the usual location, “the Auction-Room in Queen-street” rather than “the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”  Something distinguished the sale of the “large and elegant Assortment” of textiles as different, meriting a one-day-only sale at Russell’s home rather than the auction house … and its unique placement among news items instead of alongside other advertisements.

As a partner in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Russell certainly exercised some influence in the placement of his advertisements, even though John Green oversaw the day-to-day operations of the newspaper.  Deciding to experiment with an unusual placement for his notice, Russell may have convinced other printers to give his advertisement a privileged place in their publications as well.  In his History of Printing in America (1810), Isaiah Thomas described Russell as “full of life,” asserting that “[f]ew men had more friends, or were more esteemed.  In all companies he rendered himself agreeable.”[1]  Perhaps this vivacious auctioneer convinced his partner and several other printers to slip an advertisement into a place that such notices did not customarily appear in the 1770s.

**********

[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 140.

May 1

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 1, 1771).

“Lower Terms than can be at any Shop or Store in the Province.”

Although “Sadler and Jockey Cap-Maker” Richard Sharwin signed his entire name at the end of his advertisement in the April 29, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, he deployed the mononym “SHARWIN” as a headline to draw attention.  The mononym suggested that consumers should already be familiar with his reputation, but he also declared that he was “From LONDON” to further underscore his importance for readers who were not familiar with his work.  Sharwin proclaimed that he made a variety of items, “the several Materials and Workmanship the best of their Kind.”  From “hunting Sadles with Hogskin seat” to “Pelm and Snaffle Bridles with Silver plated Bits” to “Velvet Jockey Caps,” the items he produced in his shop were “as Neat as can be Imported.”  Sharwin assured prospective customers that when they shopped locally, they still acquired goods of the same quality as those that arrived from London.

Sharwin also tended to price in his advertisement, pledging that he sold his wares “upon lower Terms than can be at any Shop or Store in the Province.”  Advertisers commonly asserted their low prices, but not nearly as often did they encourage consumers to compare their prices to those of their competitors.  Sharwin not only did so but also listed prices for welted saddles (“from 8 to 10 Dollars”) and plain saddles (“from 6 to 8 Dollars”), allowing readers to do some comparison shopping without even visiting his shop on King Street.  They could judge for themselves whether he offered bargains.  Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans provided prices in their advertisements only occasionally, making Sharwin’s invitation to compare prices all the more notable.  Prospective customers could use the prices for welted saddles and plain saddles as a barometer for how much he charged for the dozens of other items listed in his advertisement since Sharwin set prices for “every Article in proportion.”

All in all, Sharwin incorporated several standard elements of eighteenth-century advertising into his own advertisement while also experimenting with less common marketing strategies.  Like many other advertisers, he emphasized consumer choice by listing an assortment of goods, touted his connections to London, and underscored quality and price.  He enhanced his advertisement with a mononym for a headline, stating the prices for some items, and trumpeting that his competitors could not beat those prices.  Sharwin crafted an advertisement that was not merely a rote recitation of the usual appeals made to consumers.

April 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (April 1, 1771).

“At the Black Boy and Butt.”

Two advertisements in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post featured Black bodies on display, either as part of a device that marked the location of a shop or in the description of an enslaved man who liberated himself by fleeing from his enslaver.  In each instance, an advertiser laid claim to a Black body for his own purposes and benefit.

Jonathan Williams sold “Good Madeira,” other imported wines, and cider at his shop “in Cornhill.”  To help customers identify his business, Williams marked the location with a sign, “the Black Boy and Butt,” that depicted a Black child and a large cask.  Like other purveyors of goods and services who included shop signs in their advertisements, Williams presented an image intended to represent his business, a precursor to the modern logo.  In this instance, that image commodified not only wine through the depiction of the cask but also Black men, women, and children through the depiction of the “Black Boy.”  Both wine and enslaved Black people arrived in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies via networks of trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic.  Colonial consumers very well knew that commerce depended in large part on enslaved labor and the transatlantic slave trade.  In placing a Black boy and a cask on display, Williams’s shop sign encapsulated that relationship.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (April 1, 1771).

Elsewhere among the advertisements in that issue, Hugh McLean of Milton provided a description of “a Negro Man, named Peleg Abby” and offered a reward to “Whoever will apprehend said Runaway.”  According to McLean, Abby was “about 26 Years of Age” and “about Five Feet Six Inches high.”  To help readers recognize the fugitive who sought his freedom so they could return him to bondage, McLean also documented the clothes Abby wore when he departed and other clothes he took with him.  McLean placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but that version also included a generic woodcut of a Black man on the run.  The image helped draw attention to that advertisement at the same time that McLean asked readers to take careful note of the age, height, and clothing of all Black men they encountered in order to discern if any of them might be the enslaved man he sought to recover.

Black people were a common sight in Boston and its hinterlands in the colonial period on the eve of the American Revolution.  Descriptions of Black bodies, sometimes accompanied by nondescript woodcuts, were also subjects of interest in the public prints, frequently appearing in newspaper advertisements published in the bustling port city.  Their presence testified to the extent that both culture and commerce, even in New England, were enmeshed the transatlantic slave trade and the perpetuation of slavery in the colonies.

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.

February 13

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

Left: Boston-Gazette (February 11, 1771); Right: Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (January 14, 1771).

“The following BOOKS, which will be Sold for a little more than the SterlingCost.”

John Boyles placed identical advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy in January and February 1771.  Purveyors of goods and services often submitted identical copy to printing offices, leaving the format to the compositors who set the type.  As a result, the contents of their advertisements were consistent across publications, but graphic design varied significantly.  That was not the case, however, with Boyles’s advertisements.  They were identical – copy and format – in the two newspapers.

Consulting digital copies rather than originals does not allow for measurements, but it does permit other means of comparison.  Note, for instance, that in Boyles’s location on the third line, “Next Door to the THREE DOVES,” the last three letters in the word “DOVES” rise slightly in both advertisements.  Similarly, the “o” in “to” is slightly higher than the “t.”  Three lines lower, the words “Sterling” and “Cost” do not have a space between them in either advertisement.  Instead, they run together as “SterlingCost.”  The line that separates the two columns extends only to the top of the last item in the list, “Hoyle’s Games,” in both advertisements.  Throughout the advertisements, spelling, capitalization, italics, spacing, line breaks, and every other typographical choice appear identical, a lack of variation rendered practically impossible unless the printers of the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy shared the advertisement after setting the type.

The timing of the advertisement’s appearance in the two newspapers allows for that possibility.  It ran once in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on January 14, 1771, and then ran twice more in the Boston-Gazette on February 4 and 11.  Three weeks elapsed between its appearance in the first newspaper and the next.

This example raises a variety of questions about the business practices of early American printers as well as decisions made by at least one advertiser.  Printers usually established advertising rates that included setting type and running advertisements in several issues, usually three or four.  They then charged additional fees for each subsequent insertion.  Boyles’s advertisement ran three times, but not in consecutive issues of the same publication.  Why did the advertisement seemingly move from one newspaper to another (as opposed to the common practice of submitting the same copy to multiple newspapers simultaneously)?  What role did Boyles play in making this decision?  What role did the printers of the two newspapers play?  Who transferred the type from one printing office to another?  Under what circumstances?  When and how did the type return from the Boston-Gazette to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  How did the printers and Boyles handle payment for the advertisement?  How often did early American printers share type already set?  They frequently reprinted items from one newspaper to another, but sharing type in this manner suggests a very different level of collaboration among printers.  These questions do not have easy answers, but they suggest complex interactions among printers and advertisers that merit more investigation to understand the production of early American newspapers and the business of advertising in the eighteenth century.

December 24

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

Boston Evening-Post (December 24, 1770).

“The Royal Exchange Tavern … will be opened this Day as a COFFEE-HOUSE.”

When Abigail Stoneman opened a new coffeehouse in Boston in December 1770, she attempted to increase the visibility of her venture by advertising in multiple newspapers rather than trusting that word-of-mouth recommendations and the readership of a single publication would be sufficient to attract customers.  Having “repaired and fitted for the Reception of Company” the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street, Stoneman announced that it now operated as a coffeehouse, though she also provided furnished lodgings “for constant or occasional Boarders.”

To spread the news widely, she placed notices in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, three of the five newspapers published in Boston at the time.  She did not insert her advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter or the Massachusetts Spy.  The latter had only recently launched and carried few advertisements, perhaps indicative of a smaller readership and, accordingly, fewer prospective customers.  Her budget for advertising may have prompted Stoneman to limit her efforts to three newspapers instead of placing notices in all four with wider distributions.

The copy and format of Stoneman’s advertisements further confirm the division of labor evident in other paid notices that ran in multiple newspapers.  The advertiser assumed responsibility for composing the copy, but the compositor exercised discretion when it came to format.  Stoneman’s advertisements featured identical copy (with the exception of a dateline that did not appear in the Boston Evening-Post, though that very well could have been a decision made by the compositor).  The format from newspaper to newspaper, however, varied.  The iteration in the Boston Evening-Post had the most recognizable headline and made use of centering for “COFFEE-HOUSE” in a larger font.  The other two iterations treated the copy as a single paragraph that lacked centering or white space to draw attention to significant aspects.

Regardless of the graphic design decisions made by compositors for the various newspapers, Stoneman informed the public that she offered hospitality at a new coffeehouse in the Royal Exchange Tavern.  Readers of multiple newspapers encountered her invitation to enjoy the new atmosphere at the Royal Exchange Tavern, repaired and remodeled as a coffeehouse.  Whether or not readers had previously visited, she welcomed them all to her new enterprise.

December 10

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (December 10, 1770).

“The Co partnership of JOSEPH and DANIEL WALDO, is mutually dissolv’d.”

When their partnership came to an end in the fall of 1770, Joseph Waldo and Daniel Waldo placed newspaper advertisements “to give Notice to all Persons who have any Demands on said Company, to apply to DANIEL WALDO for Payment.”  They also called on “those who are indebted to said Company” to settle accounts “as soon as possible.”  That portion of the advertisement was fairly standard, replicating many others that appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies.

The nota bene at the end of the advertisement, however, incorporated a marketing strategy not nearly as common in these routine notices.  In this special note, Daniel proclaimed that he “continues the Business as usual.”  He pledged that the “Customers of the late Company, and all others, who may Favour him with their Custom may depend on being used in the best Manner.”  In the course of their partnership, the Waldos had established a clientele and a reputation among consumers in Boston and beyond.  Although the partnership had been “mutually dissolv’d,” Daniel sought to maintain both the clientele and the reputation, inviting existing customers to continue to deal with him and alerting others that the business continued to operate after Joseph’s departure.

That may explain why the advertisement did not include a certain element common to many such notices about partnerships dissolving.  The Waldos did not threaten legal action against those who owed debts, unlike others that made it clear that those who did not settle accounts would find themselves in court.  Doing so would have impaired Daniel’s attempts to continue friendly relationships with a customer base that he hoped to maintain.  After all, he promised continuing and prospective customers that they “may depend on being used in the best Manner.”  Daniel focused on customer service as a means of cultivating his business as it entered a new stage without Joseph as a partner.

November 5

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (November 5, 1770).

“The remainder of the Articles will be advertised next Week.”

Readers of Boston’s newspapers in the late 1760s and early 1770s would have been familiar with shopkeeper Frederick William Geyer thanks to his frequent advertising.  On November 5, 1770, he placed a brief advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, but its length was not of his choosing.  Instead, the printers truncated the notice that Geyer submitted for publication.  The advertisement indicated that Geyer sold “a fine Assortment of Englishand India GOODS” at his shop on Union Street.  It included a short list of textiles that extended only three lines that preceded a note from the printers that “The remainder of the Articles will be advertised next Week.”  Indeed, the following week a more extensive advertisement did appear in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  It opened with identical copy, but then devoted forty-four lines, rather than just three, to enumerating the inventory available at Geyer’s shop.

Based on the placement of Geyer’s advertisement in the November 5 edition, it appears that the printers cut short his notice in order to make room for news items.  Like most other newspapers of the era, an issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy consisted of four pages created by printing two on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  The first and fourth pages were often printed first.  Printers held the second and third pages in reserve for news that arrived by messenger, post, or ship.  Geyer’s notice ran in the final column on the third page, suggesting that it and other advertisements in that column filled out the issue once the printers inserted the news for the week.  The news on that page included more than a column of content dated “Boston, November 5” that the printers apparently considered more pressing than Geyer’s advertisement.

This raises questions about the relationship between printers and advertisers.  Did Geyer have to pay to have the truncated advertisement inserted in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  Printers usually charged by the amount of space an advertisement occupied, so Geyer might have paid a smaller amount for the brief version than he paid for the full version a week later.  Alternately, recognizing that Geyer was a regular customer whose advertisements generated revenues for their newspaper, the printers could have inserted a short version gratis as a courtesy, giving Geyer and his goods at least some exposure in the public prints.  The length of the truncated advertisement implies that the printers may have valued it as filler to complete the column.  The note about the remainder of his merchandise appearing in the next edition was likely intended just as much for the advertiser as for prospective customers who would be interested in perusing the list.  Questions about these printing practices and business decisions cannot be answered by examining the newspapers alone, but ledgers and correspondence that provide more detail may no longer exist.

October 17

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 15, 1770).

“Great Allowance to travelling Traders, &c.”

Following the death of George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, on September 30, 1770, colonial printers quickly engaged in simultaneous acts of commemoration and commodification.  Radiating out from Boston, newspapers provided extensive coverage of Whitefield’s passing, in news articles reprinted from one newspaper to another, in verses dedicated to the minister, and in a hymn composed by Whitefield himself in anticipation of it one day being sung at his funeral.  In addition to widespread and widely reprinted commemorations of Whitefield, printers also hawked memorabilia that commodified his death.

The first instance appeared in the October 4 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, just days after residents of Boston received the news that Whitefield died at Newburyport.  The news coverage included an announcement of “A FUNERAL HYMN, wrote by the Rev’d Mr, Whitefield … Sold at Green & Russells.”  Within two weeks, every newspaper published in Massachusetts as well as the New-Hampshire Gazette published at least one freestanding advertisement that promoted a broadside that commemorated the minister.  Printers and others made available several broadsides for consumers, some of that memorabilia featuring the funeral hymn and others featuring poems dedicated to Whitefield.

The advertisements for those broadsides initially addressed individual consumers, but on October 15 the advertisements for the “ELEGIAC POEM” by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet, in both the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy included a new note at the end: “Great Allowance to travelling Traders, &c.”  Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles offered discounts to peddlers, shopkeepers, and anyone else who would purchase in bulk and then retail the broadside beyond Boston.  Just as news of Whitefield’s death spread through printing and reprinting of articles, verses, and hymns in newspapers that were distributed far beyond the towns in which they were published, the opportunities to engage in commemoration through commodification also widened.  Newspapers in Boston, Salem, and Portsmouth all ran advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia.  The producers of that memorabilia expected and encouraged further distribution into villages, offering discounts to facilitate the further dissemination of their product.