February 4

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 4, 1773).

“The Conduct of the Parties from first to last will best appear … when the Evidences on both Sides are properly examined.”

Printers selected which items appeared among the news and editorials in their newspapers, yet colonizers exercised some amount of editorial authority when they published news in the form of advertisements.  Consider and exchange between Patty Hall and her neighbors in two newspapers published in Boston in the first week of February 1773.

Hall initiated the exchange with an advertisement in the February 1 edition of the Boston-Gazette.  Placing the notice for the purpose of selling a house, Hall seized the opportunity to name several of her neighbors and report that they “made a Complaint to the Selectmen, about a Piece of Land; and they laid it before the Grand Jury; and after making a great Bustle, dropt the Matter.”  The matter being settled, Hall declared that the purchaser “may depend that a good Title will be given.”  According to Hall, that was only the beginning of the trouble she supposedly had with her neighbors.  She claimed that at the same time she “had her Windows broke, Spouts tore down, the Drane stopt,and frequently Stones thrown at all Parts of the House.”  To make matters even worse, she “very nearly escap’d a great Stone thrown at her passing thro’ the Yard.”  She suspected that her neighbors were directly responsible or “employ somebody to do it” and offered a reward to anyone “that will apprehend the Person or Persons concern’d.”

Boston-Gazette (February 1, 1773).

The neighbors that Hall named – “Constable Hale, James Bailey, Samuel Sloan, Retailer, Elizabeth Clarke and Nowell, and Deacon Barrett” – objected to the version of events that Hall published in the Boston-Gazette.  Rather than wait a week to make their rebuttal in the next edition of that newspaper, they inserted their own notice in both the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy just three days later.  They identified themselves as “THE PERSON mentioned with so much Politeness by Mrs. HALL in her advertisement, *” and directed readers to “* See Edes and Gill’s last Gazette.”  They offered clarifications about the outcome of the “Bustle” in court, stating that when Hall “gave Notice that the Matter was dropt, she should have added,—  “in order to be taken up at another Court.’”  Unlike Hall, the neighbors considered the matter far from settled.  They encouraged others “to suspend their Judgment both as to the Merits of the Cause and the Title … until the same shall be determined in a due course of law.”  As for the other allegations made by Hall, her neighbors implied that she fabricated the story.  “The Conduct of the Parties from first to last will best appear, either to their Honor or Disgrace,” they asserted, “when the Evidences on both Sides are properly examined.”  In refusing the dignify Hall’s allegations with any more of a response, her neighbors suggested they had no merit.

Hall wished to frame the narrative of her troubles with her neighbors.  Purchasing a paid notice in one of the local newspapers allowed her to do so.  Similarly, those neighbors also bought advertising space to tell their side of the story.  This allowed both parties to bypass the printer-editors of the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, and the Massachusetts Spy to determine for themselves what kind of content the public read or heard about as colonizers discussed the altercation that appeared among newspaper advertisements that delivered all kinds of local news.

January 21

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 21, 1773).


Just a week after the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy carried advertisements announcing that An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty or the Essential Rights of the Americans was “Now in the press, and will be published in a few days” on January 14, 1773, both newspapers carried notices about the publication of a second edition.  John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark identify the author, “A British Bostonian,” as John Allen, a Baptist minister who migrated to New England in the early 1770s.  They consider the Oration “one of the best-selling pamphlets of the pre-Revolutionary crisis, passing through seven editions in four cities between 1773 and 1775.”[1]

The Oration very quickly went to a second edition.  Was that because the first edition sold out so quickly?  Or did other factors play a role.  The advertisement in the January 21 edition of the Massachusetts Spy implied that it was the former, that the popularity of the pamphlet prompted the printers, David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis, to publish “The SECOND EDITION.”  In addition to the advertisements that ran on January 14, another advertisement appeared in the Boston-Gazette on January 18, helping to incite interest and demand in a pamphlet drawn from an address that many Bostonians heard several weeks earlier.  Word-of-mouth chatter about the Oration likely supplement newspaper advertisements in promoting the pamphlet.

The advertisement in the January 21 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter provided additional details. It featured two revisions to the original notice.  The headline now read “This Day Published” instead of “To-Morrow will be Published.”  In addition, a new line at the end of the notice advised prospective customers that they could purchase “The SECOND EDITION corrected.”  Did Kneeland and Davis sell out of the first edition?  Or did they take advantage of producing a second edition that corrected errors to suggest that such the first edition met with such success that it made the immediate publication of a second edition necessary?  Either way, the reception of the first two editions apparently convinced other printers in Boston, Hartford and New London in Connecticut, and Wilmington in Delaware, that they could generate revenues by publishing their own editions.  In so doing, they assisted in disseminating arguments that encouraged colonizers to move from resistance to revolution during the era of the imperial crisis that culminated in thirteen colonies declaring independence from Great Britain.


[1] John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, “New England’s Tom Paine: John Allen and the Spirit of Liberty,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 21, no. 4 (October 1964): 561.

January 7

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 7, 1773).

“A Negro Man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London.”

An advertisement in the January 7, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter informed readers of a novelty that they could see for themselves.  “At Mr. M’Lean’s, Watch-Maker near the Town-House,” it read, “is a Negro Man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes Faces at the lowest Rates.”  For anyone intrigued by this notice, “Specimens of his Performances may be seen at said Place.”  According to J.L. Bell, this “portrait artist was probably Prince Demah, enslaved to Henry Barnes of Marlborough. Barnes had recently taken the young man to London and arranged for lessons from the artist Robert Edge Pine. In February, Demah painted a portrait William Duguid,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although the advertiser depicted the Black man as possessing “extraordinary Genius,” recognized and cultivated by a white artisan, free and enslaved Black men and women possessed a variety of skills and contributed to colonial commerce in many ways.  They did far more than perform agricultural labor.  From New England to Georgia, they worked alongside white artisans who often received credit for the items they produced or otherwise profited from their industry.  In Boston, for instance, an enslaved family of printers, Peter Fleet and his sons Pompey and Caesar, worked in the printing office where Thomas Fleet published the Boston Evening-Post in the middle of the eighteenth century.

On the same day that the notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter described the “extraordinary Genius” of a Black man at a local watchmaker’s workshop, an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette reported that Abraham, an enslaved man who liberated himself by running away from his enslaver on Christmas Day, was a “Cabinet-Maker by Trade.”  In the same issue, William Wayne sought to hire out “Four Negro Painters … Who are capable of finishing a Piece of Work in any Manner their Employers may think proper to have it.”  Other advertisements that offered enslaved men and women for sale or promised rewards for the capture and return of enslaved men and women who liberated themselves regularly indicated that they pursued skilled trades, including carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, and seamstresses.

A watchmaker in Boston treated the “extraordinary Genius” of a Black man as a marketing ploy to draw prospective customers to his shop, yet readers may not have been easily convinced that this announcement merited their attention.  Through everyday experience, they knew that Black men and women worked at any number of skilled trades.

December 24

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter(December 24, 1772).

There are some Almanacks with Dr. Ames’s Name thereto that are very erroneous.”

In the December 24, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Richard Draper continued the efforts to inform the public about counterfeit editions of “AMES’s Almanack for 1773” that he, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, and Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette, began three days earlier.  According to a note from Nathaniel Ames, the author of the popular almanac, “The only True and Correct Almanacks from my Copy, are those printed by R. Draper, Edes & Gill and T. & J. Fleet.”

Draper expanded on the notice that previously appeared in other newspapers, advising readers and prospective customers that “there are some Almanacks with Dr. Ames’s Name thereto that are very erroneous.”  In particular, those counterfeits contained misinformation about “Roads and Stages,” but in the “true Almanack” those errors had been “corrected, amended and placed in a better Manner than in any Almanack heretofore published.”  Draper offered a justification not only for choosing Ames’s “true Almanack” over counterfeit editions but also for choosing it over any other almanacs advertised and sold in New England.

Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy, advertised some of those almanacs on the same day that Draper published the extended version of the advertisement about Ames’s “True and Correct Almanacks.”  Under a headline that simply declared, “ALMANACKS,” Thomas listed “AMES’s, Lowe’s, Gleason’s (or Massachusetts Calender) and Sterne’s ALMANACKS” available at his printing office.  Thomas did not note whether he sold Ames’s almanac printed by Draper, the Fleets, and Edes and Gill, but his newspaper was the only one in Boston that did not carry the notice from those printers that week.

Postscript to the Massachusetts Spy (December 24, 1772).

In addition, the supplement that accompanied that edition of the Massachusetts Spy contained just one advertisement.  It advised prospective customers about “AMES’s Almanack, for 1773, just published and to be sold by Russell & Hicks, in Union street, next the Cornfield.”  Whether or not Thomas sold the counterfeit almanac at his own shop, he did not seem to have any qualms about generating revenue by running advertisements placed by the printers who published the suspect edition.  Given that households from the most grand to the most humble acquired almanacs each year, those pamphlets were big business for printers.  Rivalries in printing, marketing, and selling almanacs became a regular feature of newspaper advertising each fall and into the winter months.

December 17

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

Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury (December 17, 1772).

“Stirrups … immediately disengaged.”

Richard Sharwin placed an advertisement for “the new invented SPRINGS For the Stirrups of Ladies and Gentlemens Saddles” in the December 17, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  In an advertisement he placed in another newspaper a year and a half earlier, Sharwin described himself as a “Sadler and Jockey Cap-Maker, from LONDON.”  He did not list his occupation or origins in his new advertisement, perhaps believing that he had so sufficiently established his reputation among local consumers that he no longer needed to do so.  Instead, he simply directed prospective customers to “the White Horse in King-Street, BOSTON.”

With the exception of a nota bene that provide a general overview of Sharwin’s services that followed his signature, the saddler devoted his advertisement to those “new invented SPRINGS,” using the word “springs” in capital letters as a headline for the notice.  Sharwin explained that when a rider fell from a horse, the springs “immediately disengaged” from the stirrups and “prevented the Danger of being drag[g]ed.”  In offering assurances about quality, the saddler asserted that his springs “are made as compleat as from the Patentee in London.”  In addition, they “may be fixed to any Lady’s or Gentleman’s Saddle.”  Sharwin could make riding safer for any client.

He was not the only saddler in New England emphasizing safety as a marketing strategy in the final months of 1772.  Three weeks earlier, John Sebring, “Sadler, Chaise and Harness Maker, from London,” inserted an advertisement that included detachable stirrups in the Providence Gazette.  He advised prospective customers that he “makes Men and Womens Saddles on such a Construction, that if the Horse should throw his Rider, and the Foot should hang in the Stirrup, the Stirrup will leave the Saddle before the Horse takes three steps.”  Given that colonial newspaper circulated far beyond the cities and towns where they were printed, both Sharwin and other residents of Boston may have seen Sebring’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette.  Sharwin certainly wanted prospective customers to know that they did not need to order saddles with that feature from artisans in Providence or London.

In marketing their saddles, Sharwin and Sebring combined appeals to safety and innovation, a strategy that became increasingly common as advertising continued to develop in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The saddlers encouraged consumers to acquire new inventions with enhanced safety features rather than settle for products that may have seemed more familiar but lacked such important elements.

November 29

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

Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (November 26, 1772).

“Serges,           Flannels.”

The partnership of Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers had confidence in the advertising copy they published in Boston’s newspapers in 1772, so much confidence that they ran the same advertisement in the November 26 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter that previously appeared in the February 19 edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  After nine months, they continued to use a headline that proclaimed “GOODS EXTREMELY CHEAP” and a nota bene that declared that they “constantly keep by them a large Assortment of almost every Kind of Goods usually imported from Great-Britain.”  They explained that hey received their merchandise “immediately from the Manufacturors,” skipping the English merchants that often acted as middlemen, and passed along the savings to their customers.

Although the copy remained the same, the format changed from newspaper to newspaper.  In general, advertisers usually composed copy for their notices and then entrusted graphic design decisions to compositors.  That seems to have been the case with these advertisements.  The first headline, “GOODS EXTREMELY CHEAP,” appeared in all capitals in both newspapers, but the second headline, “Amorys, Taylor and Rogers,” incorporated italics in the Boston Evening-Post but not in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Similar variations occurred throughout the two versions of the same advertisement in those newspapers.

In addition, the compositor for Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter reduced the amount of space required for the advertisement.  The version in the Boston Evening-Post featured two columns with one item listed in each column.  That created significant white space to aid readers in navigating the advertisement.  The new iteration, however, appeared more cluttered as a result of the compositor placing two items on a line when space allowed.  The new design had space between items that now shared lines, creating a winding trail of white space in the center of the column on the left.  Since advertisers paid by the amount of space their notices occupied rather than the number of words, Amorys, Taylor, and Rogers may have requested this modification in order to save space and reduce their costs.  More likely, the compositor made the decision to suit the needs of the newspaper, reserving space for news and other advertisements.

October 25

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

Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 22, 1772).

“PROPOSALS For Re-Printing by Subscription … Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Spirit of Laws”

On October 22, 1772, Richard Draper distributed a two-page supplement to accompany the standard issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  That supplement consisted almost entirely of advertising, though it did include brief news items from London and Quebec.  A subscription proposal for an “American Edition of … Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Spirit of Laws” filled most of the second page of the supplement.  That subscription proposal would have looked familiar to colonizers who also read the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy since it appeared in that newspaper three days earlier.  It may have also looked familiar to those who had not perused the other publication.  As I argued when examining the first appearance of the subscription proposal in Boston’s newspapers, it likely circulated separately as a handbill or broadside.

Draper adopted the same method of making the subscription proposal fit on the page that John Green and Joseph Russell used in their newspaper.  Since it was wider than two standard columns, he created a narrower third column by rotating the type to run perpendicular to the rest of the page.  Draper also added a colophon, centered at the bottom of the subscription proposal.  This method of making the broadside fit on a newspaper page was not the only similarity between its appearance in two newspapers.  It looks as though the printing offices shared the type.  If that was the case, who produced the broadside?  Draper or Green and Russell?  Even if the subscription proposal did not circulate separately as a broadside or handbill, the printers almost certainly shared type between their offices.  That was not the first time in 1772 that Draper collaborated with other printers in that manner.  In May, Jolley Allen’s advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter had identical copy and format.  At the same time, Andrew Dexter’s advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter also featured identical copy and format.  At various times, Draper apparently shared type already set with three other printing offices.  Yet he was not always involved in instances of sharing type.  Advertisements for a “Variety of Goods” that ran in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on October 12, for instance, appear identical, with the exception of the last two lines either added to the notice in the Boston-Gazette or removed from the one in the Boston Evening-Post to make it fit the page.  Examining advertisements reveals several other examples of printers in Boston seemingly sharing type in the early 1770s.

As I have noted on other occasions that I have identified what appears to be type transferred from one printing office to another, these observations are drawn from digitized copies of eighteenth-century newspapers.  Examining the original editions, including taking measurements, may yield additional details that either demonstrate that Boston’s printers did not share type for newspaper advertisements or that further suggest that they did indeed do so.  This question merits further investigation to learn more about business practices in printing offices that competed for both newspaper subscribers and advertisers.

Supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 22, 1772).

October 22

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 22, 1772).


In the fall of 1772, David Sears joined other advertisers in Boston who used borders composed of decorative type to enclose either the headline or their entire newspaper notice.  Sears proclaimed that he sold “CHEAP GOODS,” that headline surrounded by printing ornaments that called attention to his advertisement and prompted subscribers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter to read more about the “fresh Assortment of Gall and Winter Goods” he recently imported from London.  His advertisement in the October 26 edition of the Boston-Gazette included the same headline within a decorative border.  In with instances, the headline and its border directed prospective customers to his bold claim that he set “such Prices that is not possible to be conceived of without Trial.”  In other words, it would take some effort to even imagine such low prices.

Sears certainly was not the first advertiser in Boston to incorporate a border into a newspaper advertisement.  As early as 1766, Jolley Allen made borders around his entire notices a signature element of his marketing.  Occasionally other advertisers deployed borders as well, but greater numbers did so simultaneously in the summer and fall of 1772.  Jolley Allen and Andrew Dexter both published advertisements with borders in May, though the Massachusetts Spy seemingly rejected any requests or instructions to include a border around Allen’s advertisement.  Martin Bicker ran an advertisement surrounded by a border in August.  Jonathan Williams, Jr., also did so in September.  Other merchants and shopkeepers opted for borders around just the headlines.  The week before Sears ran his advertisement on October 22, William Jackson introduced his notice with a border around the headline, “Variety Store.”  A few days later, Herman Brimmer and Andrew Brimmer had a border enclosing “Variety of Goods” at the top of their advertisement in Supplement to the Boston-Gazette.  The printers of that newspaper had recently used a decorative border for their own notice calling on subscribers with overdue accounts “to make immediate Payment.”

These examples may seem scattered, but considering how infrequently borders adorned advertisements in Boston’s newspapers (or newspapers printed elsewhere in the colonies) they suggest a trend among advertisers in 1772.  Sears may have observed that others included borders in their notices and determined that he desired the same for his advertisement, combining a pithy headline and graphic design to demand the attention of readers.

October 15

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 15, 1772).

“WANTED immediately, a Wet-Nurse.”

Richard Draper had too much content to publish all of it in the October 15, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  He remedied the situation, in part, by printing and distributing a supplement on a smaller sheet.  That supplement included additional news, but no advertising.  Even with the supplement, Draper did not have enough space for all the news and advertising received in the printing office.  A note at the bottom of the final column on the third page instructed readers to “See SUPPLEMENT” and advised that “Other Articles and Advertisements must be defer’d.”

Why insert such a note on the third page instead of placing it at the end of the final column on the last page?  The process of printing newspapers on a manually-operated press provides an explanation.  Like most other newspapers from the era of the American Revolution, a standard issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half.  Printers usually set the type and printed the first and fourth pages on one side of the sheet.  After it dried, they printed the second and third pages on the other side.  That resulted in the latest news often appearing inside the newspaper rather than on the front page.  That also meant that the last portion of the newspaper arranged by the compositor was the third page, not the final page.  That being the case, announcements about supplements and omitted materials usually appeared on the third page.

Draper did manage to include one additional advertisement in the standard issue for October 15 rather than deferring it for a week.  The urgency of the notice may have convinced him to make a special effort to include it.  “WANTED immediately,” the advertisement proclaimed, “a Wet-Nurse, with a young Breast of Milk, that can be well Recommended, to suckle a Child in a Family: Enquire of the Printer.”  That notice ran in the right margin of the third page, almost the entire length of an extensive advertisement that listed merchandise stocked by John Barrett and Sons at their store “near the MILL-BRIDGE” in Boston.  With some creative graphic design, Draper squeezed an advertisement seeking a wet nurse, a notice that likely arrived late to the printing office, into that issue.  In so doing, he adapted to the technology of the printing press while providing a special service to that advertiser.

September 13

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letters (September 10, 1772).

“Will be sold (by Wholesale only) at such Rates as may encourage all Retailers in Town and Country.”

The partnership of Smith and Atkinson advertised a “large and very general Assortment of Piece Goods” in the September 10, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, but they did not seek to sell their wares directly to consumers.  Instead, they addressed retailers, advising them of their intention to deal “by Wholesale only.”  Smith and Atkinson imported such a variety of merchandise that they considered it “equally tedious & unnecessary to enumerate here.”  They may have wished to avoid paying for the amount of space required to catalog their inventory in a newspaper advertisement, but this strategy also had the benefit of prompting “Retailers in Town and Country” to fret about what kinds of goods Smith and Atkinson had on hand that might “compleat their Assortments” that they offered to their own customers.

Shopkeepers considered promoting consumer choice one of the most effective appeals in eighteenth-century advertisements.  Many did publish lengthy lists in the public prints, demonstrating to prospective customers that they could fulfill their needs and desires.  Even those who opted for shorter advertisements often mentioned the “assortment” or “variety” of wares they stocked.  Realizing that retailers so often advanced such appeals to rouse demand among consumers, Smith and Atkinson adapted the strategy to their own purposes in targeting shopkeepers in Boston and surrounding towns.  They proclaimed that they could augment any inventory throughout the year, “there being at all Seasons … a great Variety” of goods at their store.  They also declared that they set low prices for retailers who wished to enhance their inventory, explaining that they could pass along the savings because “these Goods have been purchased on the best Terms.”  In addition, those who paid cash received even better deals.  Smith and Atkinson mentioned that “Due Encouragement will be given to those who pay ready Money” twice.  Many of the advertisements for consumer goods in colonial newspapers targeted consumers themselves, but merchants also resorted to advertising to facilitate wholesale transactions.  When they did so, their appeals about large assortments of goods and low prices simultaneously adapted and reinforced the marketing strategies commonly deployed by retailers who sought to incite demand among consumers.