September 19

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

Massachusetts Spy (September 16, 1773).

“˙ɥsɐƆ ɹoɟ dɐǝɥƆ ǝɯǝɹʇxƎ”

Although likely resulting from an error in the printing office, Duncan Ingraham’s advertisement in the September 16, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy almost certainly caught the attention of readers.  Except for a heading, “ADVERTISEMENT,” the entire notice appeared upside down at the top of the third column on the second page.  The placement of the advertisement, not just its orientation, was unusual.  In that issue, Isaiah Thomas, the printer, or a compositor who worked for the Massachusetts Spy reserved advertising for the final two pages, making Ingraham’s advertisement the only paid notice on the second page.  It appeared after news dated, “TUESDAY, September 13. BOSTON,” and above “EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE” dated, “WEDNESDAY, September 14. BOSTON,” the date and location based on when ship captains delivered the news to the printing office, not when and where the events occurred.  Even without flipping the text, Ingraham’s advertisement was a juxtaposition from the rest of the contents on the page, meriting its own header.  No separate headers for “ADVERTISEMENTS” appeared on the third or fourth pages.  Had Thomas or the compositor originally intended for something else to appear in the space ultimately occupied by the upside-down advertisement?

When Ingraham’s advertisement next ran in the Massachusetts Spy, two weeks later on September 30, the compositor corrected the error.  It appeared right-side up, interspersed among other paid notices on the final page.  Working quickly to print the newspaper on a manually-operated press, those working in the printing office may not have caught the error after a compositor set the type for Ingraham’s advertisement and the entire block of text got rotated when added to the other contents of the second page.  How did readers react?  Did this work to Ingraham’s benefit?  When readers encountered the upside-down advertisement, did they turn their newspaper over so they could peruse it?  Upon realizing it was an advertisement rather than news, how many opted to look more closely?  How many decided to ignore it in favor of continuing with updates from England, Russia, Egypt, and other faraway places?  Did the unusual format at least make the advertisement’s headline, “Extreme Cheap for Cash,” more memorable for readers, even those not attentive to the remainder of the advertisement?  Ingraham advertised frequently enough that regular readers would have already been familiar with the merchant.  For marketing purposes, it may have been sufficient for some to see his name, “Extreme Cheap for Cash,” and a list of goods without reading through the entire inventory.

Printers, compositors, and advertisers sometimes experimented with typography in order to call more attention to certain newspaper notices.  While that does not appear to have been the intention in this instance, Ingraham’s upside-down advertisement still raises questions about how readers experienced advertisements with unusual formats or placed in unusual spots within newspapers.  Ingraham’s advertisement, flipped over and surrounded by news, may have garnered more notice than had it run alongside advertisements from his competitors that ran elsewhere in the Massachusetts Spy.

September 12

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

Massachusetts Spy (September 9, 1773).

“The Royal American MAGAZINE is likely in a short time to make its appearance.”

Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy, continued his efforts to solicit subscribers for a new endeavor, the Royal American Magazine, in the fall of 1773.  Like many other projects proposed by printers, publishers, and booksellers, he would not take the magazine to press until his subscription proposals garnered sufficient interest to justify further investment.  Thomas began with a brief announcement in his own newspaper on May 27, declaring that he would soon publish “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”  On June 24, the proposals appeared in the Massachusetts Spy.  Thomas may have also distributed the proposals as a separate broadside or handbill.

After inserting the proposals in his own newspaper, Thomas set about disseminating them to an even broader market by placing them in all of the newspapers printed in Boston as well as newspapers published in other colonies.  In July, the proposals ran fourteen times, appearing in seven newspapers printed in Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Providence.  In August, the proposals appeared thirteen more times in eight newspapers.  They ran for the first time in newspapers published in Hartford and New London.  Along the way, Thomas, who had achieved a reputation for opposing the British government with the news and editorials in the Massachusetts Spy, issued a separate clarification that the Royal American Magazine “will never be GUIDED or INFLUENCED by any PARTY whatever,” despite allegations to the contrary.  However, when Thomas began publishing the magazine in January 1774, it quickly became a vehicle for delivering propaganda that favored the patriot cause.

In September 1773, Thomas dispensed with running the lengthy proposals in the Massachusetts Spy in favor of a shorter notice that encouraged the public, presumably familiar with the project, to become “promoters of this useful undertaking” by “send[ing] in their names with all convenient speed.”  He required “NO Money” until subscribers received the first issue, which he planned to publish “as soon as he hears what number of subscribers there are in the other colonies.”  Thomas pledged that the magazine “is likely in a short time to make its appearance” thanks to “the generous encouragement of a great number of gentlemen in this province.”  Through reporting that the magazine already had so many subscribers, Thomas leveraged existing demand in hopes of generating more demand among those who had not yet subscribed.  To increase the likelihood that prospective subscribers would see and take note of this shorter advertisement, he gave it a privileged place immediately after the news in the September 9 edition of the Massachusetts Spy.

August 26

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

Massachusetts Spy (August 26, 1773).

“THE trial and defence of the Rev. JOHN ALLEN, (author of the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty).”

In several entries for the Adverts 250 Project, I have traced advertisements for The American Alarm, or the Bostonian Plea, for the Rights, and Liberties, of the People and An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, or the Essential Rights of the Americans, both signed by “A British Bostonian,” in late 1772 and 1773.  According to John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, the Oration “proved to be one of the best-selling pamphlets of the pre-Revolutionary crisis, passing through seven editions in four cities between 1773 and 1775.”[1]  Both pamphlets had been attributed to Isaac Skillman for some time, but work undertaken by Thomas R. Adams in the early 1960s “conclusively identified the author of the pamphlets as one John Allen.”[2]

Curious about the evidence that settled any dispute over the authorship of these pamphlets, I consulted the entries for each in Adams’s bibliographical study, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea.  Adams pointed to the December 10, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, stating that it “identifies John Allen as ‘The British Bostonian’ who wrote An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty.”[3]  The local news included in that issue includes the reference: “Last Thanksgiving P.M. Mr. Allen, a British Bostonian, preached a Sermon at the Rev. Mr. Davis’s Baptist Meeting-house from those Words, Micah VII. 3.”  An advertisement in the February 2, 1773, edition of the Essex Gazette promoted “An Oration on the Beauties of LIBERTY, from Mic. vii. 3. Delivered at the Second Baptist Church in Boston, on the last Thanksgiving Day.”  That does indeed present conclusive evidence of Allen’s authorship of the Oration.

Newspaper advertisements provide additional evidence.  A notice in the August 26,1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy explicitly associates Allen with the Oration.  David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis, the publishers of the Orationand the American Alarm, advertised “THE trial and defence of the Rev. JOHN ALLEN, (author of the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty) … Published at the request of many.”  As Bumsted and Clark explain in their biographical sketch of Allen, he “was tried in the Old Bailey for forging and uttering a promissory note for pounds” in January 1769.  Allen claimed that he discovered the note in a memorandum book and, unaware that it was a forgery, attempted to claim a reward for returning it to the rightful owner.  He gave a misleading account about how he came into possession of the note.  In the end, “Allen was acquitted of the charge of forgery, but obviously he had not conducted himself as a clergyman should in the affair.”  Rumors traveled with Allen when he migrated from London to Boston, making some colonizers hesitant to allow him to preach and, eventually, inciting interest in publishing a transcript of his trial, though “whether by his friends or his enemies is not clear.”[4]

Identity of the author of An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty may have been temporarily obscured, but residents of Boston knew that Allen was the “British Bostonian” who penned that pamphlet, originally a sermon, and other political tracts published in the early 1770s.  Newspaper advertisements play a role in confirming Allen’s authorship centuries later, providing key evidence for bibliographical work.


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

[2] Bumsted and Clark, “New England’s Tom Paine,” 561.

[3] Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea: A Bibliographical Study of the American Political Pamphlets Printed between 17634 and 1776 Dealing with the Dispute between Great Britain and Her Colonies (Providence: Brown University Press, 1965), 68-9.

[4] Bumsted and Clark, “New England’s Tom Paine,” 562-3.

July 29

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

Massachusetts Spy (July 29, 1773).


As Isaiah Thomas attempted to entice enough subscribers to launch the Royal American Magazine, at a time that no magazines were published anywhere in the colonies, he found himself in the position of defending against rumor about what kind of content the publication would feature.  On July 29, 1773, he once again ran the subscription proposals as the first item in the front page of his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy.  On the third page, the inserted another notice with the headline “ROYAL AMERICAN MAGAZINE” to comment on the gossip.  “WHEREAS it has been reported, (notwithstanding the declaration of the intended publisher, in his proposals),” Thomas stated, “that the Royal American Magazine will be influence by a PARTY; this may serve to acquaint the public, that notwithstanding what might be reported, whenever this intended work shall make its appearance, it will never by GUIDED or INFLUENCED by a PARTY, whatever, while published by “I. THOMAS.”  In other words, some meddling colonizers suggested that Thomas, known for the critiques of the British government that he published in his newspaper, would deploy the new magazine for the same purpose.

As Thomas reminded readers, the proposals did indeed preemptively address any suspicions on that count.  Immediately before listing the conditions, such as price and publication dates, in the proposals, Thomas devoted a paragraph to that very question.  “The public may be assured,” the printer pledged, “that the Royal American Magazine, is not by any means to be a Party affair, or any ways tend to defame or lessen private characters.”  That being the case, he “therefore begs no one would conceive an unfavourable opinion of it, as his design is to render it acceptable to ALL honest men, of whatever religious or political principles they may be.”  Colonists in and near Boston could choose from among five newspapers printed in the city, some, like the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy, known for their support of the Sons of Liberty and others, like the Boston Post-Boy and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, known for their Loyalist sympathies.  With only one magazine to serve all the colonies, however, Thomas aimed to select content that would make the publication “acceptable to ALL honest men.”

Whatever his intentions may have been (and whether or not he accurately represented them to prospective subscribers and the public), the Royal American Magazine did seem “GUIDED or INFLUENCES by a PARTY” when Thomas began publishing it at the end of January 1774.  In A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850, Frank Luther Mott notes that “propaganda for the patriot cause was prominent.”[1]  Perhaps “ALL honest men” included only those patriots who shared Thomas’s perspective, any others not honest at all in his view.


[1] Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), 84.

July 22

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

Massachusetts Spy (July 22, 1773).

“An ELEGY on the affecting Tragedy at Salem.”

Three days after Ezekiel Russell first advertised a broadside “Decorated with the Figure of Ten Coffins” that gave the “Particulars of the late melancholy and shocking TRAGEDY,” the drowning of three men and seven women, “which lately happened at SALEM, near Boston, the 17th of June 1773,” in the Boston Evening-Post, he ran a similar advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy.  That new advertisement, repeated in the next issue, included all of the copy from the Boston Evening-Post with the addition of a note about a related item, “An ELEGY on the affecting Tragedy at Salem … By a friend to the deceased.”  These broadsides memorialized the deaths of ten colonizers, including five pregnant women, but they also commodified the tragedy in the form of a keepsake that Russell recommended as “very proper to be posted up in every house in New-England.”  To that end, he offered a similar deal for both broadsides to peddlers who purchased copies to sell near and far.  For the first broadside, the Particulars, Russell noted that “Great allowance is made to travelling Traders, who buy them by the Groce.”  For the other, the Elegy, he offered “an allowance to travelling traders.”

The broadsides each featured an image of ten coffins, each with the initials of one of the drowning victims, and thick mourning borders, but otherwise their contents differed.  In advertising them together, Russell suggested that customers might wish to acquire both as a means of memorializing “the most sorrowful event of the kind, that has happened in America since its first discovery.”  In addition, the broadsides expanded on the coverage that already appeared in newspapers published in Salem and Boston.  The Particulars included the report that first appeared in the Essex Gazette on June 22 as well as an introduction that reiterated the description in the advertisement first published in the Boston Evening-Post on July 12.  The “Names of the Deceased” appeared in the center, surrounded by mourning borders.  A short poem, “The Salem TRAGEDY.  Being a Relation of the drowning of Ten Persons, who were taking their Pleasure on the Water,” appeared below the newspaper account.  It consisted of five stanzas of four line each.  In addition to the ten coffins, an image depicted a strong gust of wind, so strong that it was visible, and a boat foundering in the water.  Mourning borders also surrounded that image.

The Elegy included a shorter introduction that gave the names of the victims and indicated their relationships to each other above a poem, fifteen stanzas in two columns with a double mourning border between them, and a remembrance attributed to “A FRIEND TO THE DECEASED.”  That anonymous friend stated, “Surely no one can fully express the horror and anguish of mind these People’s friends at MARBLEHEAD must suffer … resulting from this amazing catastrophe, and which must form such a shocking scene, that it can better be imagined than expressed.”  Yet neither that “FRIEND” nor Russell left the “Tragedy at Salem” to the imagination of consumers.  The “FRIEND” encouraged others to “make a right improvement” in the wake of “such an awful warning as this from GOD.”  Russell may have shared that perspective.  Whatever his views in that regard, he certainly leveraged current events in marketing a relic to consumers, playing on their emotions and curiosity about the extraordinary tragedy.

Detail from “The Particulars of the Late Melancholly and Shocking Tragedy” (Boston: 1773). Courtesy Library of Congress.

June 24

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

Massachusetts Spy (June 24, 1773).

“SUBSCRIPTIONS are taken in by I. THOMAS the printer and publisher.”

Near the end of May 1773, Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, placed a notice in his own newspaper to announce that the following week he would publish “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”  He may have meant that he would distribute the proposals as as a broadside or handbill separate from the newspaper or he may have meant that they would appear in the next issue of the Massachusetts Spy.  Perhaps he did print separate subscription papers, though none have survived.  I frequently argue that newspaper notices provide evidence of a greater number of advertising ephemera circulating in eighteenth-century America than have been preserved in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  On the other hand, the busy printer may have delayed publishing the proposals by several weeks.  When they did appear in the Massachusetts Spy on June 24, they ran on the front page.  The savvy printer gave the proposals a privileged place.

Extending nearly two columns, the proposals included Thomas’s purpose for publishing the new magazine, a “PLAN” for the contents, and the “CONDITIONS” or details about the price, the paper, the type, and delivery options.  Subscription proposals for books, newspapers, and magazines usually included all those elements, though not necessarily at such great length.  Thomas, however, exerted significant effort in convincing readers to subscribe.  In explaining his purpose for publishing the magazine, for instance, he declared that “Newspapers are known to be of general utility, but not so fit to convey to posterity the labours of the learned, as they are, most commonly, only noticed for a day and then thrown neglected by.”  In contrast, “Monthly Publications are preserved in the libraries of men of the greatest abilities in the literary world.”  In the last decades of the eighteenth century, many magazine subscribers in America saved each issue for six months and then had them bound into a single volume to display on the bookshelves of their permanent libraries.  Thomas acknowledged how subscribers treated magazines and their specialized content differently than newspapers in that regard.

In outlining the “PLAN,” Thomas described how he would go about acquiring items to publish in the Royal American Magazine.  He declared that he “has engaged all the British Magazines, Reviews, &c. and all the Periodical publications in America” and “from those will be selected whatever is new, curious, and entertaining.”  He did not intend merely to reprint content from those “British Magazines.”  Instead, he emphasized a process of discernment in “selecting from the labours of our European brethren,” but promised prospective subscribers that he “shall not fail of making the strictest searches after curious anecdotes, and interesting events in British America.”  To that end, he engaged in an eighteenth-century version of crowdsourcing: “the publisher now requests the assistance of the learned, the witty, the curious, and the candid of both sexes, throughout this extensive continent, and hopes they will favour him with their correspondence for the public benefit.”  Although the magazine would carry some European content, Thomas aimed to produce a distinctively American publication.

In addition, Thomas offered a premium or gift to subscribers “to complete this PLAN,” a free copy of “Governor HUTCHINSON’S History Of the MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.”  That book alone “will be worth the cost of the magazine.”  However, subscribers would not receive a copy at the outset.  Instead, they would receive a portion of the book with each issue of the magazine, “printed in such a manner as to be bound up by itself, and on a larger type than the magazine.”  Thomas planned to insert the first pages of Hutchinson’s History “at the end of the first number” or issue and continue “until the whole is finished.”  To make the premium even more enticing, subscribers would also receive, gratis, “copper plate prints, exclusive of those particularly for the magazine.”  Thomas hoped that the free gift would make subscribing to the magazine even more attractive.

Although the subscription proposals for the Royal American Magazine included many of the same elements as proposals for books, newspapers, and magazines that circulated in the colonies in the eighteenth century, Thomas introduced innovative methods of encouraging colonizers to subscribe.  Among those, he pledged to make pieces written in America a priority for publication.  He also promoted a premium for subscribers, asserting that the free gift alone covered the cost of a subscription.  Even with these marketing efforts, it took some time for Thomas to launch the magazine.  He published the first issue in January 1774.

June 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (June 10, 1773).

“(The particulars in Monday’s papers.)”

After opening the “New Auction-Room” in Boston in 1773, auctioneer William Greenleaf sometimes deployed a two-step strategy for promoting upcoming sales in the public prints.  Consider the notice that he placed in the Massachusetts Spyon Thursday, June 10.  Greenleaf advised readers that a “great variety of English GOODS” “Will be sold by PUBLIC VENDUE” on the following Tuesday.  Rather than publish a roster of those items, he encouraged colonizers to look for subsequent advertisements with “The particulars in Monday’s papers.”  That meant that readers had to consult newspapers other than the Massachusetts Spy.  All five newspapers published in Boston in 1773 were weeklies, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy appearing on Thursdays and the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on Mondays.  The auction would be over by the time the printer published the next edition of the Massachusetts Spy.

Readers who turned to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy for “The particulars” on the following Monday did not encounter any additional information, but those who perused the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette did indeed discover a more complete preview of Greenleaf’s next auction.  In nearly identical advertisements, the auctioneer listed dozens of items, including “a fine Assortment of Chints, Callicoes and Printed Linens,” “a Number of Silver Watches,” and “a suit of Green Bed Curtains.”  The sale would begin “precisely at Ten o’clock” the next morning, so readers interested in bidding on any of the items needed to arrive in time that they did not miss that part of the sale.  Those advertisements likely contained information that had not yet been finalized the previous Thursday, yet given that Greenleaf competed with several other auctioneers in Boston he wished to generate some level of visibility for his next vendue, especially since those other auctioneers regularly advertised in multiple newspapers as well.  As advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers came and went in the public prints, notices from auctioneers, updated weekly, remained a constant feature in the city’s many newspapers.  In this instance, Greenleaf oversaw an advertising campaign that he updated more than once a week, coordinating with multiple printing offices.

May 30

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 27, 1773).

Thursday next will be published … PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”

Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, inserted a brief notice in the May 27, 1773, edition to advise the public that he would soon publish and distribute “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, The ROYAL American MAGAZINE.”  Those proposals, a description of the purpose, contents, and price of the magazine, likely appeared on a handbill or broadside, though the printer may have also devised a circular letter to send directly to likely subscribers.  Yet again, a newspaper notice provides evidence of other forms of advertising that circulated in early America in the absence of those materials surviving in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections.  Thomas eventually inserted the proposals in the Massachusetts Spy and other newspapers, providing a glimpse of the handbills or broadsides.  The Adverts 250 Project will examine those newspaper notices in the coming weeks and months.   Despite Thomas’s promotional efforts, he did not publish the first issue of the Royal American Magazine, or Universal Repository of Instruction and Amusement until eight months later in January 1774.

At the time, readers had access to more than two dozen newspapers printed throughout the colonies, including five in Boston, but imported magazines from London.  As Frank Luther Mott explains in A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850, “At the time the first number of the Royal American was issued, there had been no magazine of any kind in the colonies for more than a year and a half, and no general magazine for more than four years.”[1]  According to the “Chronological List of Magazines” that Mott compiled, the Royal American Magazine was only the sixteenth magazine published in the colonies (and that included the Censor, a newspaper-magazine hybrid published in Boston for less than six months from late November 1771 through early May 1772).  Thomas later recollected that his magazine “had a considerable list of subscribers.”[2]  Even so, it lasted for only fifteen months, the last issue published in March 1775. Thomas did not publish the magazine the entire time.  He suspended it in the wake of disruption caused by the Boston Port Bill and later relinquished it to Joseph Greenleaf.  The publication did not continue after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.


[1] Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), 83.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 286.

May 13

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

Massachusetts Spy (May 13, 1773).

“Hand and Shop BILLS.”

At the bottom of the final page of each issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the colophon informed readers that they could purchase subscriptions from Isaiah Thomas at his printing office in Boston or from local agents in several other towns in the colony.  In addition, the colophon stated, “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in,” “PRINTING in its various Branches, performed in a neat Manner,” and “HAND BILLS at an Hour’s Notice.”  Thomas aimed to generate revenue from both notices in the newspaper and advertisements printed to distribute separately.

In the spring of 1773, the printer enhanced his efforts to encourage colonizers to purchase advertising.  He commenced with a newspaper notice that appeared as the first item at the top of the first column on the first page of the April 16 edition.  Thomas advised that “THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”  Furthermore, “Advertisements (sent in season) are inserted in a neat and conspicuous manner on the most reasonable terms.”  The remainder of the notice solicited subscriptions, though the printer’s comment that the newspaper “has met with very great encouragement from the public” also assured advertisers of its “extensive circulation” that made advertising a good investment.

Three weeks later, Thomas inserted another advertisement about advertising, this time for “Hand and Shop BILLS.”  Printers occasionally hawked handbills, as Thomas did in the colophon, but rarely did they advertiser shop bills.  Those billheads, the precursors to modern letterheads, included the name and location of the merchant, shopkeeper, or artisan.  They often featured a visual image or a brief advertisement describing the goods and services available at the shop or both.  Most of the sheet remained blank, leaving space to write in a list of purchases.  Billheads simultaneously served as both advertisements and receipts.

Thomas apparently sought to increase the amount of advertising produced at his shop.  He declared that he “furnished himself with an elegant assortment of LARGE, and other TYPES, for the purpose of printing in the best manner, SHOP and other BILLS.”  He acknowledged that the type he used for printing the newspapers was not always the best choice for freestanding advertisements like broadsides, handbills, and billheads.  Instead, Thomas acquired the necessary equipment for crafting the most effective advertisements.

He also gave his notice about “Hand and Shop BILLs” a privileged spot the first time it appeared, placing it after news from Boston dated May 5 and before news from Boston dated May 6.  Even readers who only skimmed or completely skipped over advertisements were likely to see it there.  His previous notice about advertising in the Massachusetts Spyran as the final item in the Postscript, the only advertisement in that supplement, reinforcing the printer’s efforts to market advertising.  As with other instances of advertising ephemera mentioned in newspaper notices, the “Hand and Shop BILLS” that Thomas promoted in the spring of 1773 testifies to a vibrant culture of advertising in early America, though most such items have not been collected and preserved in research libraries and historical societies.

April 16

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

Massachusetts Spy (April 16, 1773).

THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”

Many colonial printers promoted their newspapers in the colophon that appeared on the final page.  Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, did so in one of the lengthier colophons that appeared in newspapers published in the 1770s.  In addition to providing his name and the place of publication, he gave extensive directions to his printing office “At the South Corner of MARSHAL’S LANE, leading from the MILL-BRIDGE into UNION-STREET.”  Thomas noted that “all Persons may be supplied with this Paper” and gave the price for an annual subscription.  He also listed local agents in four towns – Bridgewater, Charlestown, Newburyport, and Salem – who accepted subscriptions on his behalf.  In addition, Thomas solicited advertisements and job printing, including handbills and printed blanks.  He informed prospective customers of “PRINTING in its various Branches, performed in a neat Manner, with the greatest Care and Dispatch, on the most reasonable Terms.”

Massachusetts Spy (April 16, 1773).

Although printers regularly promoted various goods and services available in their printing offices, they did not often include their own newspapers among those advertisements (except to call on recalcitrant subscribers to make payments) nor did they insert notices to encourage the public to place advertisements.  That made Thomas’s notice at the top of the first column on the first page of the April 16, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy rather unusual.  The printer proclaimed, “THE extensive circulation of the MASSACHUSETTS SPY, through town and country, renders it very beneficial for those who ADVERTISE therein.”  Established July 17, 1770, the Massachusetts Spy was the newest of the five newspapers published in Boston at the time, but Thomas suggested that its circulation rivaled its competitors.  Advertising in his newspaper, the printer asserted, drew the attention of readers and, in turn, that attention yielded results for the advertisers.  In making his pitch, Thomas also stated that “Advertisements … are inserted in a neat and conspicuous manner on the most reasonable terms,” offering assurances about the effectiveness, quality, and price of advertising in his newspaper.

Thomas also sought new subscribers.  After extolling advertisements, he addressed “Such gentlemen and ladies, in this Province as are desirous of taking in the SPY.”  The printer characterized its contents as “the earliest and most important Foreign and Domestic Intelligence, with a number of ORIGINAL papers, on a variety of subjects.”  To further entice prospective subscribers, he gave the price of an annual subscription and trumpeted that it “is cheaper than any public paper or other periodical publication whatever, of its bigness [or size], in the four quarters of the globe.”  Accordingly, the Massachusetts Spyhas met with very great encouragement from the public,” a pronouncement intended to resonate with prospective advertisers as well as prospective subscribers.  In a nota bene, Thomas offered to send the newspaper to “Gentlemen and ladies in any of the American colonies, who incline to subscribe,” another testament to the “extensive circulation” that he mentioned as a reason for placing advertisements.

At the bottom of the final page of each issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the colophon informed readers that Thomas accepted subscriptions at the printing office and briefly mentioned “ADVERTISEMENTS taken in.”  Although advertisements accounted for significant revenue for colonial printers, Thomas and others rarely promoted advertising except in the colophons of their newspapers.  In this instance, Thomas apparently recognized an opportunity to cultivate more advertising for his newspaper.  In making his pitch to prospective advertisers, he emphasized price (“reasonable terms”) and, especially, effectiveness (displaying notices in a “conspicuous manner” and the “extensive circulation” of the newspaper).  He coupled those appeals with his efforts to attract more subscribers, hoping to expand both means that the Massachusetts Spy generated revenue.