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).

“Massachusetts-Spy.”

Just over six months after the Massachusetts Spy commenced publication in July 1770, printer Isaiah Thomas temporarily suspended the newspaper in early February 1771.  Thomas warned both current and prospective subscribers of the hiatus in a series of notices in the Spy, pledging that he would relaunch the newspaper, with improvements, in March.  He hoped that the plans he outlined would attract new subscribers.

During the time that Thomas suspended publication, he turned to other newspapers to promote the Spy and seek subscribers.  On February 18, he placed advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  In each, he addressed “all LOVERS of NEWS, POLITICKS, TRUE LIBERTY, and the FREEDOM of the PRESS.”  He also declared that the Spy was “open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None,” though Thomas became an increasingly vocal supporter of the patriot cause.  Indeed, four years later he fled to the relative safety of Worcester and set up his press there because he feared retribution from British officials angered by coverage in his newspaper if he remained in Boston.

Rather than focus on politics in this advertisement, however, Thomas described the plan for publishing the improved Spy.  He originally intended to publish it on Tuesdays, the day after the newspaper that carried his advertisement, but reported that he would instead publish it on Thursdays “at the Request of a great Number of the Subscribers.”  In appearing to give the customers what they wanted, Thomas further enhanced the Spy by gaining “the Advantage of inserting what News may be brought by the Hartford-Post, who arrives on Wednesday Evenings.”  Like other newspapers, the Spy featured extracts of letters and items reprinted directly from other newspapers.

Thomas also listed other details, including the size and appearance of the newspaper and subscription rates.  The revitalized Spy “will be printed on Demy Paper, every Number to contain four Pages large Folio, and every Page four columns.”  While a couple of newspapers published in other towns at that time featured four columns per page, none of those published in Boston did.  In this manner, Thomas sought to distinguish his newspaper from the local competition.  If printers mentioned subscriptions rates in print at all, they most often did so in the plan of publication.  Thomas set the price at six shillings and eight pence per year, with half to be paid on delivery of the first issue and the other half paid at the end of the year.  Like other printers, he extended credit to subscribers.

The enterprising printer also gave instructions for subscribing, inviting “All those who are kind enough to encourage this Undertaking … to give in their Names as soon as they conveniently can.”  Thomas accepted subscriptions himself, but he also specified several agents in Boston.  They included fellow booksellers and printers, though none of the printers of other newspapers published in Boston.  He also had local agents in nearby Charlestown as well as the more distant Salem.  Thomas would eventually collect the “Subscription Papers” from his various agents and collate the names into a single subscription list.

Thomas envisioned significant improvements to the Massachusetts Spy, but he needed the support of subscribers to put his plans into effect.  He first outlined new aspects of his newspaper in the Spy before it temporarily halted publication, but then he turned to advertising in other newspapers to seek subscribers (and presumably advertisers) and generate interest as the public anticipated publication of the new Massachusetts Spy.

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.

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[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_thomas1818
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]

jan-30-worcerster-magazine-april-1786
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.

jan-30-advertising-wrapper-worcester-magazine-4th-week-may-1786
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!

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[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.

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.