August 25

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

Massachusetts Spy (August 22, 1771).

“BREWSTER’s BEST ground and made CHOCOLATE.”

Name recognition and brand loyalty have become important aspects of modern marketing campaigns, but those strategies have roots that go back centuries.  Consider John Farmer’s advertisement for chocolate in the August 22, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Spy.  Although he made and sold chocolate at his shop on Fish Street in Boston, Farmer promoted his product as “BREWSTER’s BEST ground and made CHOCOLATE.”

Farmer made Brewster the centerpiece of his advertisement.  Rather than have his own name serve as the headline, as John Cushing did in his advertisement for sugar and William Scott did in his advertisement for Irish linens on the same page, Farmer instead deployed Brewster’s name on its own, in capitals and centered on the first line.  Readers quickly perusing the Massachusetts Spy would have much more easily spotted Brewster’s name than Farmer’s name.  In addition, Farmer described himself as the “successor to the late John Brewster,” signaling to his former customers that they could acquire chocolate of the same quality from him.

He also offered assurances about quality.  Just as customers came to expect the “BEST ground and made CHOCOLATE” from Brewster, they could depend on Farmer meeting the same standards.  He made a promise to that effect, stating that his product was “warranted good and fre[e] from any mixture.”  Farmer may have also expected that others could leverage the quality associated with Brewster’s chocolate.  He sold it “Wholesale or Retail.”  Shopkeepers who purchased it wholesale may have similarly informed their customers that they carried the familiar Brewster’s chocolate made by Brewster’s successor.

When it came to buying chocolate, residents of Boston had many options.  To incite demand for his product, Farmer depended on name recognition and encouraged brand loyalty among consumers in his efforts to convince them to shop “at the sign of the Chocolate-Cakes” rather than anywhere else.

June 6

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

Massachusetts Spy (June 6, 1771).

“The Estate of JANE EUSTIS, late of Boston, Shop-keeper.”

For several weeks in the spring of 1771 the Massachusetts Spy carried a notice requesting “all those persons who are indebted to the Estate of JANE EUSTIS, late of Boston, Shop-keeper, deceased, or that have any Demands on, or accounts open with the estate … settle such accounts with JOSEPH PEIRCE, merchant, in Boston.”  During her lifetime, Eustis ran advertisements in the public prints in order to promote her business, but that was not the only form of marketing that she deployed.  In the late 1760s, Eustis distributed an engraved trade card, known at the time as a shopkeeper’s bill, to supplement her newspaper advertising.

Jane Eustis’s Trade Card or Shopkeeper’s Bill, ca. 1769. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Surrounded by a rococo border, the text resembled a newspaper advertisement.  It opened with a familiar phrase, “Imported from LONDON,” before naming Eustis, giving her location, and listing a variety of “English and India Goods,” primarily textiles, “Millinary & Haberdashery.”  A brief note assured prospective customers that Eustis sold her merchandise “All Cheap for Cash.”  Although a significant number of female entrepreneurs in Boston and other towns placed newspapers advertisements, relatively few disseminated trade cards, billheads, broadsides, or other forms of advertising in eighteenth-century America.  Eustis’s trade card is also notable for being the earliest known shopkeeper’s bill distributed by a woman.  The copy in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society features a receipted bill for lace, gloves, and textiles dated April 17, 1769, on the reverse.  Merchants and shopkeepers tended to use the same design for years, so Eustis may have commissioned her trade card well before 1769.

The design, especially the ornate border, testified to genteel tastes that resonated with many consumers.  Merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans in London and other English cities distributed similar trade cards throughout the eighteenth century.  Eustis, like other American entrepreneurs who commissioned trade cards, replicated a common style, positioning her marketing efforts within transatlantic networks of commerce and consumption.  In so doing, she enhanced her appeal asserting connections to London and current fashions in the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the empire.  Commissioning and distributing an engraved trade card that resembled those passed out in London suggested that even though Eustis operated a shop on the other side of the Atlantic neither she nor her merchandise could be dismissed as merely provincial.

Receipted Bill Dated April 17, 1769, on Reverse of Jane Eustis’s Trade Card. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

May 9

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 9, 1771).

“An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

In the months immediately after the death of George Whitefield on September 30, 1770, a variety of printers, booksellers, authors, and others produced and marketed an array of commemorative items that simultaneously commodified one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  This trend tapered off by the end of the year, only to be reinvigorated in the spring of 1771 when vessels arrived from England carrying copies of Whitefield’s will and sermons preached in his memory in London.  Colonial printers produced and sold American editions.  They also distributed them to booksellers and other retailers, enlarging the market for such items.

The May 9, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette carried an advertisement for yet another piece of Whitefield memorabilia, one not previously promoted in the public prints.  John Boyles informed prospective customers that he sold “An ODE set to Music, consecrated to the memory of the Rev. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, A.M. By one of his friends in Boston, New England.”  According to the catalog entry maintained by the American Antiquarian Society, this broadside featured eight stanzas and included music for four voices, making it a unique entry among the broadsides, hymnals, and other commemorative items advertised in colonial newspapers.

The catalog entry also indicates that this broadside was presumably published in Boston by an unknown printer in 1770.  This advertisement, however, suggests that Boyles may have been the printer and that he published the broadside in the spring of 1771.  According to his advertisement in the April 1, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Boyles ran a “PRINTING-OFFICE, next Door to the THREE DOVES in Marlborough-Street.”  In advertisements for other Whitefield items published in the fall of 1770, Boyles appeared among the list of printers and booksellers who sold those items.  Upon seeing a resurgence of marketing for Whitefield memorabilia in the spring, Boyles may have decided to produce a commemorative item of his own, hoping to take advantage of renewed interest and consumer demand.  If so, he likely experienced steady sales of Whitefield items he carried in the fall and did not want to miss out on a potentially lucrative means of generating additional revenue.  In producing his own broadside, Boyles assumed greater risk, but also stood to earn more profits.

Advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia became a familiar sight in several newspapers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania in the spring of 1771.  Printers and booksellers offered colonists several opportunities to commemorate the minister’s death by purchasing items created in his memory.  The “ODE set to Music” was a novel item that likely attracted interest among both consumers who previously purchased other memorabilia and those who had not yet expressed their regard for the minister through participation in the marketplace.

March 31

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

Massachusetts Spy (March 28, 1771).

“SUBSCRIPTIONS for the SPY are also taken in by Mr. J. Larkin, chairmaker.”

Most newspapers published in Boston in the early 1770s did not have extensive colophons.  Consider, for example, those newspapers published at the time that Isaiah Thomas relaunched the Massachusetts Spy on March 7, 1771.  The colophon for the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter simply stated, “BOSTON: Printed by R. DRAPER.”  Similarly, the colophon for the Boston Evening-Post read, in its entirety, “BOSTON: Printed by T. and J. FLEET.”  The Boston-Gazette also had a short colophon, “Boston, Printed by EDES & GILL.”  Limited to “Printed by GREEN & RUSSELL,” the colophon for the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy did not even list the city.  All of those colophons appeared at the end of the final column on the last page.

In contrast, Thomas adopted a style much more often (but not universally) deployed in newspapers published in other cities and towns.  Extending across all four columns on the final page, it provided much more information about the Massachusetts Spy for readers, prospective subscribers and advertisers, and others who might have business with the printing office.  He included his location, “UNION-STREET, near the Market,” and listed the subscription price, “Six Shillings and Eight Pence” annually.  He also noted that he sought advertising, but did not specify the rates.  In addition, Thomas stated that “Articles of Intelligence … are thankfully received.”  In other words, he solicited contributions to print or reprint in the Spy.  Like other newspaper printers, he accepted job printing as a means of supplementing the revenues from subscriptions and advertising.  Thomas proclaimed that he could produce “Small Hand-Bills at an Hour’s Notice.”  He provided all of the services available in other printing offices.

Thomas included an additional enhancement in his colophon, one that not only did not appear in other newspapers published in Boston but also did not appear in other newspapers published throughout the colonies.  He listed local agents who accepted subscriptions for the Spy in towns beyond Boston: “Mr. J. Larkin, chairmaker, and Mr. W. Calder, painter, in Charlestown; Mr. J. Hillier, watch-maker, in Salem; Mr. B. Emerson, Bookseller, in Newbury-Port; and Mr. M. Belcher, in Bridgewater.”  That portion of the colophon reflected advertisements Thomas placed in other newspapers prior to relaunching the Spy.  It testified to a network the printer established for gathering sufficient subscribers to make his newspaper a viable enterprise.  The list also made it more convenient for prospective subscribers to order their copies of the Spy.  Those who lived in any of the towns listed in the colophon could deal directly with the local agents rather than dispatch letters to the printing office in Boston.

When it came to publishing a newspaper in Boston, Thomas was a newcomer in the early 1770s.  All of the other newspapers in circulation had been established for many years.  Perhaps the printers believed that their newspapers and their printing offices were so familiar to readers that they did not need extensive colophons providing a lot of information.  Thomas chose a different model, one much more common in newspapers published in other places.  In the process, he added his own innovation, listing local agents, in order to gain greater advantage of the portion of each issue that he surrendered to the colophon.

February 26

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

Essex Gazette (February 26, 1771).

“Subscriptions are taken in by I. Thomas, Printer and Publisher … M.J. Hiller, Watch-maker in Salem.”

As Isaiah Thomas prepared to relaunch the Massachusetts Spy after a brief hiatus, he placed advertisements in several newspapers published in Boston.  On February 18, 1771, he inserted a notice in all three newspapers published that day, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In that notice, he revised the plan of publication he previously outlined.  Instead of publishing the Spy on Tuesdays, the day after new editions of the Evening-Post, Gazette, and Gazette and Post-Boy, he moved the day to Thursdays in order to take advantage of the post arriving from Hartford with newspapers and letters on Wednesdays.  That would allow him to disseminate whatever news arrived from the west.

With his original plan, he would have been the only printer in Boston who circulated a newspaper in Boston on Tuesdays.  The revised plan, however, put him in direct competition with the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Despite that fact, the Gazette and News-Letter carried Thomas’s advertisement for the Spy on February 21.  That notice featured copy identical to the advertisements in the other three newspapers except for the additions of a headline that labeled it “ANOTHER THURDAY’S PAPER” and “Mr. M. Belcher, in Bridgwater” as a local agent who collected subscriptions on Thomas’s behalf.

Thomas did not confine his marketing of the revamped Spy to Boston’s newspapers.  The day after it first appeared, the printer inserted the advertisement in the Essex Gazette, published in Salem.  The notice about the Spy ran for several weeks in each newspaper that carried it, a strategy likely intended to create momentum in acquiring subscribers leading up to the relaunch on March 7.  Thomas carefully coordinated that advertising campaign.  Notices usually ran for three weeks for a set fee, with an additional charge for each subsequent insertion.  Thomas planned the appearance of his advertisements to occur in the three weeks prior to commencing publication of the improved Spy.  Those advertisements did not appear in other newspapers again on or after March 7.  Instead, new issues of the Spy did the work of advertising the newspaper as they circulated in Boston and beyond.

February 18

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 18, 1771).


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.

January 28

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 28, 1771).

He shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences.”

Isaiah Thomas ranked among the most prominent and influential printers in eighteenth-century America.  Often described as a patriot printer, he consistently supported the American cause during the imperial crisis and war for independence.  The views expressed in his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, became such a thorn in the side of British officials in Boston that Thomas fled to Worcester for his own safety in the spring of 1775, continuing publication of the Massachusetts Spy there once he managed to acquire paper.  Famously, the inaugural issue published in that town featured Thomas’s firsthand account of the events at Concord and Lexington on April 19.   Among his many accomplishments, he wrote the monumental History of Printing in America (1810) and founded the American Antiquarian Society (1812).

Yet the Massachusetts Spy was not an immediate success when Thomas commenced publication in partnership with Zechariah Fowle in the summer of 1770.  They originally distributed three issues per week, but Thomas scaled back to two issues when the partnership dissolved after three months.  Thomas and Fowle had a particular readership in mind.  “The Massachusetts Spy,” Thomas explained, “was calculated to obtain subscriptions form mechanics, and other classes of people who had not much time to spare from business.”  The newspaper appeared on smaller sheets than others published in Boston in order that “the contents of the Spy might with convenience be read at a leisure moment.”[1]  The newspaper was slow to attract advertisers, an important source of revenue for any eighteenth-century newspaper.  Near the end of January, Thomas inserted a notice that the following issue “compleats six months since the first publication.”  Following that issue, “he shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences, which, from the Encouragement he has already been favoured with, he doubts not will be on the first Tuesday in March next, if not before.”  For some time, Thomas had been promising an “Enlargement” to larger sheets so the Massachusetts Spywould more closely resemble other newspapers published in Boston.  Thomas suspended the newspaper for five weeks, resuming publication of the “Enlargement” on March 7.

Thomas commented on subscription numbers in both his notice in the January 28 edition and the History of Printing in America.  In the notice, he pledged that he would “begin the Enlargement as soon as ever eight hundred subscribers appears.”  The Massachusetts Spy had five hundred subscribers at the time, making Thomas’s goal look ambitious.  Whether or not he achieved the prescribed number of subscribers, Thomas did not mention when he relaunched the Massachusetts Spy (and reset the issue numbering to mark a new venture).  Decades later, he stated, “The majority of the customers for the former Spy preferred the way in which it had been published, and withdrew their subscriptions.”  The new Massachusetts Spy got off to a rocky start.  The number of subscribers dropped to two hundred, “but after the first week they increased daily, and in the course of two years the subscription list was larger than that of any other newspaper printed in New England.”[2]

Thomas did not mention, however, that the number of advertisers increased as well.  Within six months, the number of advertisements in the Massachusetts Spy rivaled the paid notices inserted in other newspapers published in Boston.  The original publication limped along with few advertisements to support its operations, but the “Enlargement” attracted new readers and with them came new advertisers and greater revenues.


[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 265.

[2] Thomas, History of Printing, 266.

Happy Birthday, Isaiah Thomas!

Isaiah Thomas, patriot printer and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, was born on January 19 (New Style) in 1749 (or January 8, 1748/49, Old Style).  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 272nd 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.

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.