January 10

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 10, 1771).

“AN exact List of Blanks and Prizes in Fanueil-Hall Lottery, to [be] seen at the Printing-Office.”

Printing offices were hubs for disseminating information in eighteenth-century America.  Many were sites of newspaper production, printing and reprinting news, letters, and editorials from near and far.  Many printers encouraged readers and others to submit “Articles of Intelligence” for publication in the colophons that appeared on the final pages of their newspapers.  Every newspaper printer participated in exchange networks, trading newspapers with counterparts in other towns and colonies and then selecting items already published elsewhere to insert in their newspapers.  Newspaper printers also disseminated a wide range of advertising, from legal notices to advertisements about runaway apprentices and indentured servants or enslaved people who liberated themselves to notices marketing consumer goods and services.  In many instances, newspaper advertisements did not include all of the relevant information but instead instructed interested parties to “enquire of the printer” to learn more.  Accordingly, not all of the information disseminated from printing offices did so in print.  Some printers also worked as postmasters.  Letters flowed through their printing offices.  Printers did job printing, producing broadsides, handbills, and pamphlets for customers, further disseminating information at the discretion of their patrons rather than through their own editorial discretion.  Many printers sold books, pamphlets, and almanacs posted subscription notices for proposed publications, and printed book catalogs and auction catalogs.

Yet that was not the extent of information available at early American printing offices.  Colonists could also visit them to learn more about the results of lotteries sponsored for public works projects.  An advertisement in the January 10, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Spy, for instance, informed readers of “AN exact Lost of Blanks and Prizes in Fanueil-Hall Lottery, to [be] seen at the Printing-Office opposite to William Vassell’s, Esq; the head of Queen-street.”  Other newspapers published in Boston that same week carried the same notice but named “Green & Russell’s Printing-Office.”  The printers of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy also played a role in disseminating information about a lottery that helped to fund a local building project.  Eighteenth-century newspapers sometimes included lottery results, the “Blanks” or ticket numbers and the corresponding prizes, but those could occupy a significant amount of space.  Rather than incur the expense of purchasing that space in newspapers, the sponsors of lotteries sometimes instead chose to deposit that information at printing offices, sites that collected and disseminated all sorts of information via a variety of means.  Printers served as information brokers, but they did not limit their efforts and activities to printed pages dispersed beyond their offices.  Sometimes colonists had to visit printing office or correspond with printers via the post in order to acquire information that did not appear in print.

January 1

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 1, 1771).

“A Happy New Year!”

On January 1, 1771, subscribers to the Massachusetts Spy received a bonus sheet, not from the printer but instead from “The LAD who carries The MASSACHUSETTS SPY.”  Unlike other supplements, this one did not carry additional news or advertising, though it could be considered a piece of marketing ephemera in its own right.  The purpose of this bonus sheet was to wish “kind Customers A Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year” on behalf of the boy who delivered the newspaper.  A woodcut depicting an angel cradling the globe adorned the top of the sheet.

The bulk of the message consisted of three stanzas, each with an AABCCB rhyming scheme.  The first focused on good wishes for the new year: “MAY grateful omens now appear, / To make the New a happy Year, / And bless th’ ensuing days: / May future peace in every mind, / Like odours wasted by the wind, / Its sweetest incense raise.”  The second celebrated the monarch and the strength of the British Empire, both points of pride for most colonists despite disputes with Parliament about attempts to regulate commerce and other aspects of imperial administration.  “May GEORGE in his extensive reign, / Subdue the pride of haughty SPAIN / Submissive to his feet. / Thy princely smiles our ills appease; / Then grant that harmony and peace / The dawning year may greet.”  The third stanza requested a boon for the carrier on the occasion of the Christmas season and the new year: “Kind Sirs! your gen’rous bounty show, / Few shillings on your Lad bestow, / Which will reward his pains. / Who piercing Winter’s cold endures, / And to your hands the SPY secures, / And still his task main[t]ains.”  In other words, the bonus sheet both extended greetings to subscribers and asked them to give holiday tips to the boys who diligently delivered their newspapers throughout the year, especially in harsh winter weather.  The Massachusetts Spy was not the only newspaper to produce and distribute such bonus sheets to subscribers.  They were a traditional part of marking the new year among newspaper printers, carriers, and subscribers in eighteenth-century America.

As the Adverts 250 Project concludes its fifth year and embarks on exploring advertising from 1771 throughout 2021, we wish our readers a Happy New Year with many grateful omens.  Thank you for supporting this project over the past five years.  Please continue to visit in the coming year.  No tips necessary!


December 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (December 13, 1770).

“At the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.”

Francis Shaw, Jr., stocked a “LARGE and neat Assortment of cream and other coloured WARE, of the newest fashion,” at his shop in Boston.  In an advertisement in the December 13, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Spy, he gave his locations as “the store lately improved by Mr. Robert Gould, opposite the sign of the Crown and Sceptre in Back-street.”  American cities did not use standardized street numbers to organize urban spaces until the late 1780s and early 1790s.  Before then, residents relied on a variety of landmarks and other descriptions to give directions.  They often used them in combination, as Shaw did.  He gave his street, but he also indicated the previous occupant of his store to guide prospective customers familiar with Gould’s business on Back Street.  He also used a shop sign for reference, though the Sign of the Crown and Scepter did not mark his own location.  Instead, he mentioned it as a landmark, describing his location “opposite” or across the street from the sign.

Other advertisers deployed similar strategies in describing their locations.  On the same day that Shaw placed his advertisement, John Langdon placed a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury.  In it, he invited prospective customers to “his Store lately Improv’d by Messr’s Cox & Berry nearly opposite the Post-Office.”  Peter Roberts sold medicines and medical equipment at his shop “opposite the West-Door of the Town-House.”  John Crosby, a frequent advertiser who peddled citrus fruits and other grocery items, gave his location as “the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons at the South-End.”  Samuel Abbot declared that his store was located “on Greene’s Wharff, near the East of the Market.”  Collectively, these advertisements and others suggest some of the methods colonists used to make sense of the cityscape and navigate the streets of Boston.  These descriptions supplement eighteenth-century maps, engravings, paintings, drawings, and other visual images as well as travel narratives and letters that depicted the busy port.  They also reveal important relationships, such as previous occupants and nearby landmarks, that mattered to both advertisers and readers of early American newspapers.  Commercial notices provided their own portraits of cities like Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.

October 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 13, 1770).

“Printed and sold by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS, at the new Printing Office.”

In the middle of July 1770, Isaiah Thomas distributed a preliminary issue of the Massachusetts Spy to announce that he would commence publishing that new newspaper in two weeks.  He sought subscribers and advertisers to make it a viable endeavor.  Three weeks passed before the next issue appeared, but after that Thomas distributed new editions of the newspaper three times a week.  Many factors could have accounted for the slight delay; attracting a sufficient number of subscribers may have been one of them.  The Massachusetts Spy continued on its thrice weekly publication schedule for just three months before Thomas scaled it back to only twice a week for three months and finally to once a week, the same schedule as most newspapers published in colonial America.

Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several other printers and their newspapers for readers in Boston and its hinterlands, including Thomas Fleet and John Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post, Benjamin Edes and John Gill’s Boston-Gazette, John Green and Joseph Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Each of those publications had served readers for many years, perhaps making it difficult for Thomas to convince subscribers and advertisers to take a chance on his new publication.  Throughout the first couple of months, few advertisements ran in the pages of the Massachusetts Spy.

In October 1770, however, more began to appear, though still a small number compared to how many advertisements filled the pages of other newspapers printed in Boston.  The October 13 edition, for instance, included four advertisements.  Gillam Bass advised the public that his shop had been “broke open … by some evil minded person or persons” who had stolen several items earlier in the week.  He offered a reward for information or the capture of the perpetrators.  Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles once again inserted their advertisement for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD” written by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet.  Another advertisement sought an apprentice “to a genteel business,” but did not provide much more information.  Anyone wishing to know more needed to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office.”  If Thomas had not placed this notice himself then he served as an information broker on behalf of the advertiser, not unlike newspaper printers throughout the colonies who frequently published advertisements that instructed interested parties to contact them to learn more.  Thomas and his partner, Zechariah Fowle, certainly placed the final advertisement for a religious tract that they printed and sold.  In addition to potentially yielding customers, this notice enlarged the advertising section of the Massachusetts Spy and may have made it seem more vibrant and robust to prospective advertisers contemplating whether placing a notice in that newspaper was a sound investment.

Thomas took advantage of his access to the press to run a newspaper advertisement for another branch of his printing business, a strategy frequently adopted by early American printers who published newspapers, sold books and pamphlets, did job printing, sold blanks, and pursued a variety of other related tasks in their printing offices.

October 11

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 11, 1770).

“AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD … By PHILLIS.”

On October 11, 1770, coverage of George Whitefield’s death on September 30 continued to radiate out from Boston with news appearing in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal.  The commodification of Whitefield’s death intensified as well.  Both newspapers printed in Boston on that day, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and the Massachusetts Spy, carried advertisements for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

Phillis Wheatley, now recognized as one of the most significant poets in eighteenth-century America, composed the poem, though in the advertisements she was known as “PHILLIS, A servant girl of seventeen years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston.”  Referring to the young woman as a “servant girl” obscured the fact that she was enslaved by the Wheatley family.  The advertisements further explained that she “has been but nine years in this country from Africa.”  This event brought together Whitefield, the influential minister following his death, and Wheatley, the young poet near the beginning of her literary career.  Although both are well known to historians and others today, much of Wheatley’s acclaim came after her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784.  Arguably, Wheatley is more famous than Whitefield in twenty-first-century America, reversing their relative status compared to the eighteenth century.

In addition to the novelty of an African poet, Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles also promoted the image that adorned the broadside, proclaiming that it was “Embellished with a plate, representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port.”  Examine the Library Company of Philadelphia’s copy of Wheatley’s “Elegiac Poem,” including an introduction that doubled as the copy for the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, the woodcut depicting Whitefield, and black borders that symbolized mourning in the eighteenth century.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 11, 1770).

Wheatley’s poem sold by Russell and Boyles was not the only one advertised on October 11.  In a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, Richard Draper announced that he published “An Elegy to the Memory of that pious and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST The Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”  Exercising he prerogative as printer of that newspaper, Draper placed his advertisement before the one for the broadside with Wheatley’s poem and the woodcut of Whitefield.

Both poems celebrated Whitefield’s life and ministry.  Both gave colonial consumers an opportunity to mourn for Whitefield and feel better connected to his ministry, even if they had never had the chance to hear him preach.  Especially for those who had not witnessed Whitefield deliver a sermon, purchasing one of these broadsides allowed them to have an experience closely associated with Whitefield’s life by commemorating his death.  The printers who produced, marketed, and sold these broadsides simultaneously honored Whitefield’s memory and commodified his death, merging mourning and making money.

September 29

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

Massachusetts Spy (September 29, 1770).

“LISBON LEMONS … to be sold at the Sign of the Basket of Lemons.”

The selection of advertisements for the Adverts 250 Project is contingent on which newspapers were published on a particular day 250 years ago.  On some days that means far more advertisements to choose among than others.  Consider the publication schedule of most newspapers in the fall of 1770.  Most newspapers were weeklies; printers distributed a new issue once a week.  For instance, John Carter published the Providence Gazette on Saturdays in 1770.  (The corresponding dates fall on Tuesdays in 2020.)  Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, published three times a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, was the one exception.

Some days were more popular than others.  Most printers chose Mondays or Thursdays to distribute new issues, though at least one newspaper was published somewhere in the colonies on every day of the week except Sundays.  Mondays saw the publication and distribution of the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, the Newport Mercury, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy.  A similar number of newspapers were published in Annapolis, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg on Thursdays.  An array of advertising appeared in those newspapers, sometimes overflowing the standard issues into supplements distributed simultaneously.

In contrast, the Massachusetts Spy and the Providence Gazette were the only newspapers printed on Tuesdays.  The Providence Gazette featured a moderate amount of advertising in 1770, but the Massachusetts Spy was a new publication, founded a few months earlier, and Thomas had not yet cultivated a clientele of advertisers for his new enterprise.  An advertisement for “LISBON LEMONS … to be sold at the Sign of the Basket of Lemons” in the September 29 edition was the first paid notice to appear in the Massachusetts Spy over the course of many issues.

In combination with the uneven distribution of newspaper publication throughout the week in 1770, that scarcity of advertisements in some newspapers and abundance in others shapes the Adverts 250 Project.  Some newspapers and towns perhaps receive too much attention and others not enough.  Recall, however, that printers did not published newspapers on Sundays.  This allows for a correction.  On days in 2020 that with no “new” newspapers from the corresponding days in 1770, the Adverts 250 Project features advertisements from any time during the previous week.  Strictly adhering to an “On This Day” format has consequences for which advertisements become part of the project, but a slight revision to the methodology in recognition of printing practices in the 1770s allows for a more representative sampling of advertisements, newspapers, and places of publication.

August 21

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

Aug 21 - 8:21:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (August 21, 1770).

“A General Assortment of GROCERIES.”

Isaiah Thomas launched the Massachusetts Spy on July 17, 1770, with an issue that included the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A New PAPER of INTELLIGENCE” as well as several news items.  The “PROPOSALS” served as an advertisement for the newspaper, the only advertisement that appeared in “NUMB. I,” that first issue.  Thomas stated that he would publish the next issue two weeks later (but three times a week after that) and invited subscribers and advertisers to contact him.  Three weeks elapsed before the printer distributed the next edition, but after that he kept to the schedule he outlined in the “PROPOSALS.”

The first several issues, however, did not include advertisements.  Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with four other newspapers published in Boston, all of them established years earlier and familiar to the readers in the city and its hinterlands.  Prospective advertisers quite likely did not wish to invest in placing notices in the Massachusetts Spy until they saw what kind of reception it received among the public and got a better sense of its circulation.  It was not until “NUMB. 8,” the eighth issue, that advertisements other than the “PROPOSALS” ran in the Massachusetts Spy.  More than a month after Thomas solicited advertisements in the first issue, four of them ran on August 21, 1770.  Alexander Chamberlain, Jr., advertised groceries and housewares, while two citrus sellers at “the sign of the Dish of Lemons, in Marlborough-street” and “the Sign of the Basket of Lemons … in Middle-Street” competed for customers.  An anonymous “WET NURSE” offered her services, instructing prospective clients to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office, in Union-Street.”  Like other printers, Thomas disseminated additional information to readers who followed up on advertisements that ran in his newspaper.

In the colophon on the final page, Thomas reminded readers that he accepted “Subscriptions, Articles of Intelligence, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper.”  Having finally published these advertisements, he likely hoped that they would encourage more colonists to insert their own notices in his newspaper.  After all, advertising represented an important revenue stream for any printer.  Paid notices often made the difference between newspapers successfully turning a profit or not having sufficient resources to continue publication.

August 11

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

Aug 11 1770 - 8:11:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (August 11, 1770).

“BOSTON:  Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.”

When Isaiah Thomas published the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY” in July 1770, he included advertising among the many services that his new publication would provide.  “Those who chose to advertise herein,” he promised, “may depend on having their ADVERTISEMENTS inserted in a neat and conspicuous Manner, at the most reasonable rates.”  He also pledged to maintain an appropriate balance between advertising and news items, never publishing one the exclusion of the other:  “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness,” the Massachusetts Spy “will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.”  Advertising would not crowd out other “Intelligence,” but advertising also qualified as “Intelligence” since it delivered information to readers.

Advertising also constituted an important revenue stream for printers who published newspapers, one that Thomas did not manage to cultivate in the first days of the Massachusetts Spy.  The inaugural issue called on advertisers to submit their notices, but three weeks later when Thomas commenced thrice-weekly publication he did not yet have advertisements to insert alongside other “Intelligence.”  In the fourth issue, distributed on August 11, 1770, the only item that even resembled an advertisement was the colophon:  “BOSTON:  Printed every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, by Z. FOWLE and I. THOMAS.”  Some printers used the colophon for more explicit descriptions of the goods and services they provided at the printing office, but Thomas opted for a streamlined format that was also popular among printers.

Thomas may have been frustrated but not surprised that residents of Boston did not submit advertisements as soon as he launched the Massachusetts Spy.  After all, the city was one of the busiest newspaper markets in the colonies when it came to the number of publications.  Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with several well-established publications that regularly carried significant amounts of advertising, including the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly MercuryThe Boston Chronicle had recently folded, which may have prompted Thomas to believe there was room for a new newspaper in the city, but that publication never featured many advertisements, though in its later days that very well could have been a consequence of its strident Tory tone.  The Massachusetts Spy eventually became a successful newspaper that captured its share of the market for advertisements, but in its early days advertisers waited for the new newspaper to increase its circulation numbers before investing in inserting notices in it.

July 17

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

Jul 17 - 7:17:1770 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (July 17, 1770).

“PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A new PAPER of INTELLIGENCE, entitled, THE MASSACHUSETTS SPY.”

Isaiah Thomas, now remembered as the renowned patriot printer who published The History of Printing in America in 1810 and founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812, launched his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, on July 17, 1770.  The first issue, distributed free, began with an advertisement from the printer himself, the “PROPOSALS” that frequently inaugurated eighteenth-century newspapers.  The proposal included two parts, the “CONDITIONS” of publication and an address “TO THE PUBLIC” in which the printer outlined the purpose of the newspaper.

The first condition stated that the Massachusetts Spy “will be printed with a fair Type, upon good Paper manufactured in this Province.”  From the start Thomas took a political position.  The Townshend Acts imposed duties on imported paper and other goods, prompting a boycott among colonial merchants.  Although those duties, except for the one on tea, had been repealed recently, the nonimportation agreement still remained in effect in Boston.  Thomas made clear that his newspaper would encourage domestic manufactures, specifically “good Paper manufactured in this Province,” as an alternative to imported goods.

Unlike most newspapers that consisted of four pages created by printed two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half, the Massachusetts Spy originally consisted of only two pages per issue.  However, as Thomas explained in the second condition, the “Publication will be punctually every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”  The Boston Chronicle published two issues per week, on Mondays and Thursdays, but it folded in June 1770.  No newspaper in Boston published more than one issue a week at the time Thomas founded the Massachusetts Spy.  With three issues per week, Thomas provided six pages of news and advertising compared to only four pages for other newspapers.  Furthermore, he explained in the address that on two of those days “no News-Paper is published in this Town.”  As a result, his subscribers “will always have the most material of the News, which may from Time to Time arrive from Europe and from other Parts of this Continent, on the Day of its Arrival, or the next Day following, (Sundays excepted).”  This was a particular advantage to subscribers.  Thomas proclaimed that they would receive news “sooner through this Channel than any other.”  The frequency of publication more than made up for the smaller size of the Massachusetts Spy.

Yet Thomas already envisioned expanding the newspaper when circumstances demanded.  In the fifth condition he pledged that it “shall be enlarged to double the Size of the first Number,” the two-page issue in which the “PROPOSALS” appeared, “as Occasion may require, without any additional Expence to Subscribers.”  In other word, Thomas would issue supplements when breaking news or an abundance of advertisements made doing so necessary, a common practice among eighteenth-century printers.  Any additional pages were presented to subscribers free of charge.  Thomas also made promises concerning the balance of news and advertising.  In the address he stated, “When there happens to be a larger Quantity of News and a greater Number of Advertisements than can be contained in one Number, at its usual Bigness, it will be enlarged to double its Size at such Times, in order that our Readers may not be disappointed of Intelligence.”  Thomas had no intention of allowing advertisements, often more lucrative for printers than subscriptions, crowd out the news, including “the freshest and choicest Intelligence from Europe, and the material Transactions of this Town and Province” as well as a “List of the Arrival and Departure of Ships and other Vessels” and a “List of Marriages and Deaths.”  Thomas welcomed advertisements “at the most Reasonable Rates,” but had no plans for the Massachusetts Spy to fill its pages almost entirely with advertising.

Thomas anticipated publishing the second issue two weeks later on July 31 “if a sufficient Number of Subscribers appear by that Time.”  It took an extra week for Thomas to issue “Number II” on August 7, but after that the Massachusetts Spy joined the ranks of the public prints in Boston.  Thomas continued publication until April 1775.  Shortly before the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, he fled to Worcester and took his press with him.  As an influential patriot printer, he feared British authorities and sought the safety of the smaller town in the countryside.  He revived the Massachusetts Spy in Worcester in May 1775, but the newspaper had its origins on July 17, 1770, in Boston.  The “PROPOSALS” for the newspaper, an extended advertisement, inaugurated the first issue.

Jul 17 - Page 1 Massachusetts Spy
Massachusetts Spy (July 17, 1770).

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 30 (January 19 Old Style) in 1749.  It’s quite an historical coincidence that the three most significant printers in eighteenth-century America — Benjamin Franklin, Isaiah Thomas, and Mathew Carey — were all born in January.

Isaiah Thomas (January 30, 1739 – April 4, 1831). American Antiquarian Society.

The Adverts 250 Project is possible in large part due to Thomas’s efforts to collect as much early American printed material as he could, originally to write his monumental History of Printing in America.  The newspapers, broadsides, books, almanacs, pamphlets, and other items he gathered in the process eventually became the initial collections of the American Antiquarian Society.  That institution’s ongoing mission to acquire at least one copy of every American imprint through 1876 has yielded an impressive collection of eighteenth-century advertising materials, including newspapers, magazine wrappers, trade cards, billheads, watch papers, book catalogs, subscription notices, broadsides, and a variety of other items.  Exploring the history of advertising in early America — indeed, exploring any topic related to the history, culture, and literature of early America at all — has been facilitated for more than two centuries by the vision of Isaiah Thomas and the dedication of the curators and other specialists at the American Antiquarian Society over the years.

Thomas’s connections to early American advertising were not limited to collecting and preserving the items created on American presses during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods.  Like Mathew Carey, he was at the hub of a network he cultivated for distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods — including advertising to stimulate demand for those items.  Sometimes this advertising was intended for dissemination to the general public (such as book catalogs and subscription notices), but other times it amounted to trade advertising (such as circular letters and exchange catalogs intended only for fellow printers, publishers, and booksellers).

Thomas also experimented with advertising on wrappers that accompanied his Worcester Magazine, though he acknowledged to subscribers that these wrappers were ancillary to the publication:  “The two outer leaves of each number are only a cover to the others, and when the volume is bound may be thrown aside, as not being a part of the Work.”[1]

Detail of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Second Week of April, 1786).

Thomas’s patriotic commitment to freedom of the press played a significant role in his decision to develop advertising wrappers.  As Thomas relays in his History of Printing in America, he discontinued printing his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, after the state legislature passed a law that “laid a duty of two-thirds of a penny on newspapers, and a penny on almanacs, which were to be stamped.”  Such a move met with strong protest since it was too reminiscent of the Stamp Act imposed by the British two decades earlier, prompting the legislature to repeal it before it went into effect.  On its heels, however, “another act was passed, which imposed a duty on all advertisements inserted in the newspapers” printed in Massachusetts.  Thomas vehemently rejected this law as “an improper restraint on the press. He, therefore, discontinued the Spy during the period that this act was in force, which was two years. But he published as a substitute a periodical work, entitled ‘The Worcester Weekly Magazine,’ in octavo.”[2] This weekly magazine lasted for two years; Thomas discontinued it and once again began printing the Spy after the legislature repealed the objectionable act.

Third Page of Advertising Wrapper, Worcester Magazine (Fourth Week of May, 1786).

Isaiah Thomas was not interested in advertising for its own sake to the same extent as Mathew Carey, but his political concerns did help to shape the landscape of early American advertising.  Furthermore, his vision for collecting American printed material preserved a variety of advertising media for later generations to admire, analyze, ponder, and enjoy.  Happy 271st birthday, Isaiah Thomas!


[1] Isaiah Thomas, “To the CUSTOMERS for the WORCESTER MAGAZINE,” Worcester Magazine, wrapper, second week of April, 1786.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810), 267-268.