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.

March 25

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

Massachusetts Spy (March 25, 1773).

“By enquiring of Mr. Blake, the Town-Sealer the public may be informed of the quality of his scale beams and steel yards.”

Andrew Newman offered his services as a whitesmith in an advertisement in the March 25, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy.  In addition to the usual sort of work undertaken by that trade, such as filing, lathing, burnishing, and polishing iron and steel, Newman declared that he “makes and repair[s] all kinds of scale beams, steel years and lock[s].”  Furthermore, he confidently stated that customers would find the quality and prices for such work “as reasonable as can be done in Boston.”

Many artisans included some sort of reference to their credentials, whether formal training or long experience, in their newspaper notices.  Newman did so in a nota bene.  He advised the public that he “served his apprenticeship to Mr. John McClench late of Boston, White-Smith.”  Newman likely hoped that colonizers who previously patronized McClench or were familiar with his reputation would consider hiring McClench’s former apprentice.  Even for those who did not know of McClench, Newman figured that giving information about completing an apprenticeship in the city recommended him to prospective customers.

He also encouraged them to consult “Mr. Blake, the Town-Sealer,” for an endorsement.  According to Newman, “the public may be informed of the quality of his scale beams and steel yards” when speaking with that local official.  Prospective customers did not have to rely on Newman’s word alone; instead, they could learn more and ask questions of a third party that they might consider neutral and thus more trustworthy when it came to assessing the materials that Newman produced and sold.  Short of a testimonial inserted in his advertisement, Newman likely considered such referrals the next best option.

Throughout the colonies, artisans often highlighted their credentials in their advertisements.  In his efforts to bolster his business, Newman did so, incorporating two strategies.  First, he gave details about his apprenticeship, hoping that his training with McClench would resonate with prospective customers familiar with his former master’s work.  Then, he directed the public to a local official who could provide an endorsement of Newman’s own skill and the quality of the items he made in his workshop.  Invoking both McClench and Black enhanced Newman’s assertions about the quality of his work.

March 14

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

Massachusetts Spy (March 11, 1773).

“The Fishermen who made trial of his Hooks last season, found them to correspond with his former advertisement.”

Even before thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, entrepreneurs encouraged consumers to support American industry.  Abraham Cornish, for example, marketed “New England COD and MACKREL FISH HOOKS” produced at “his Manufactory at the head of Hutchinson’s wharf, North End, Boston” in the early 1770s.  When he commenced advertising in the Massachusetts Spy in March 1772, Cornish proclaimed that his hooks were “warranted in every respect equal to any, and superior to most.”  In particular, he singled out hooks “marked IP” to declare that every fisherman who tried his hooks and “every impartial person on examining” them “will soon discover their superiority.”  Nearly a year later, Cornish reported that “the Fishermen who made trial of his Hooks last season, found them to correspond with his former advertisement,” that they were indeed “superior to those imported from England.”

Cornish’s hooks, however, were not produced from start to finish in the colonies.  Instead, he imported the “best STEEL WIRE” from London and then used that material to make the hooks at his manufactory in Boston.  What mattered, Cornish asserted to prospective customers, was the final stage of production combined with the superior quality of his hooks and his low prices.  He confidently boasted that he made “the best Cod and Mackerel Hooks.”

In his effort to supply the fishing industry with hooks, Cornish simultaneously ran the same advertisement (with variations in spelling) in the Essex Gazette, promoting his product to prospective customers in Salem and other maritime communities served by that newspaper.  He added two notes, one identifying William Vans as the local agent who carried his hooks.  Customers did not need to visit or contact Cornish in Boston if they found it more convenient to deal with Vans in Salem.  Given that those buyers would not interact directly with Cornish, he advised that his hooks “are all marked A.C. on the Flat of the Stem of each Hook.”  That helped customers verify their authenticity when they acquired the hooks from sellers beyond Cornish’s manufactory.  Such maker’s marks served as perpetual advertisements for the hooks.

March 11

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

Massachusetts Spy (March 11, 1773).

“American Ink-Powder.”

Buy American!  That was the message that many advertisers presented to consumers during the imperial crisis, before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.  It was the message that Samuel Norton of Hingham, who made ink powder, and Ann Norton of Boston, his broker in town, proclaimed to prospective customers in the March 11, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy.  Other advertisers made similar appeals, including Abraham Cornish for his “New England COD and MACKEREL FISH HOOKS.”

For their part, the Nortons introduced their product with a headline for “American Ink-Powder” followed immediately by a secondary headline that declared, “Experienced and found to be equal, if not superior to any imported.”  Earlier in the week, Henry William Stiegel made similar assertions about the glassware he made in Manheim, Pennsylvania.  To entice colonizers to try the ink powder made in Hingham, the Nortons listed several of its “excellent qualities.”  They claimed that even when documents written with the ink were “exposed to extreme wet” the ink did not run; instead, it “alters not, but will remain as long as the paper endures.”  Furthermore, the ink powder contained an ingredient that “precents ink from becoming think and mouldy.”  These factors prompted the Nortons to proclaim that this ink powder “makes the best black writing-ink,” doubling down on the secondary headline about it being as good as, or even better than, imported alternatives.

The Nortons also offered practical advice for using the ink powder.  They considered it “very convenient for gentlemen, merchants, attornies and others that travel, it being not cumbersome and liable to those mischances that other ink is.”  Purchasers could choose to mix ink “in large or small quantities, as is most convenient,” and did not have to worry about it freezing if they used “a little brandy or other spirits not liable to freeze” instead of water.  In guiding prospective customers in how to use the product, the Nortons hoped to increase the chances that some of them would purchase their ink powder and follow their directions.

They also benefited from the compositor’s choice about where to place their advertisement within that issue of the Massachusetts Spy.  It appeared immediately below coverage of the annual commemoration of the Boston Massacre. Residents of Boston marked the third anniversary with an oration “on the dangerous tendency of standing armies being placed in free and populous cities” by Dr. Benjamin Church, a lantern with paintings that depicted soldiers firing on colonizers, and the tolling of bells.  The Nortons did not make arguments about consumers’ civic responsibility to practice politics in the marketplace by purchasing domestic manufactures, goods produced in the colonies, as explicitly as some other advertisers.  Given the commemoration of the Boston Massacre that just occurred and other news about current events that crowded the pages of the Massachusetts Spy, they did not necessarily need to do so.  Prospective customers very well understood the context in which the Norton’s hawked their “American Ink-Powder.”

January 28

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 28, 1773).

An EXTRAORDINARY … will be published To morrow.”

“Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!”  That was Isaiah Thomas’s message to readers of the Massachusetts Spy.  The printer included an announcement in the January 28, 1773, edition, alerting subscribers and other readers that “An EXTRAORDINARY [No. 104, of the] Massachusetts SPY, or Thomas’s Boston Journal, will be published To morrow.”  Unlike the supplements and postscripts that sometimes accompanied early American newspapers, Thomas considered the extraordinary, distributed on a Friday, a separate issue.  As he noted in his announcement, it had its own number, 104, following “NUMB. 103,” distributed on Thursdays as usual for the Massachusetts Spy.  Thomas or a compositor who worked in his printing office updated the masthead to include “EXTRAORDINARY.”

The “extra” issue consisted of two pages, compared to four for the weekly standard issues of the Massachusetts Spy and other American newspapers published at the time.  It consisted almost entirely of a single item from the “HOUSE of REPRESENTATIVES” in Boston, along with half a column of news from Salem and one short advertisement for grocery items.  (In similar circumstances, other printers took the opportunity to insert advertisements about the goods and services available at their printing offices.)  The main item that prompted publication of the extraordinary was an “ANSWER to [Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s] SPEECH, to both Houses, at the opening of this session.”  Representatives “ORDERED” that a committee comprised of “Mr. Adams, Mr. Hancock, Mr. Bacon, Col. Bowes, Major Hawley, Capt. Darby, Mr. Philips, Col. Thayer, and Col. Stockbridge” compose that answer.  Members of the committee agreed with the governor that “the government at present is in a very disturbed state.”  They did not, however, identify the same causes.  “[W]e cannot ascribe it to the people’s having adopted unconstitutional principles,” as the governor claimed.  Instead, they believed that problems arose as a result of “the British House of Commons assuming and exercising a power inconsistent with the freedom of the constitution to give and grant the property of the colonists, and appropriate the same without their consent.”

When Thomas published the extraordinary, he already had a reputation as a printer devoted to principles espoused by the patriots.  The masthead for his newspaper described it as “A Weekly, Political, and Commercial PAPER:– Open to ALL Parties, but Influenced by None,” yet immediately below that sentiment appeared this message: “DO THOU Great LIBERTY INSPIRE our Souls,– And make our Lives in THY Possession happy,– Or our Deaths glorious in THY JUST Defence.”  Thomas likely had two reasons for quickly publishing the committee’s response as an extraordinary.  He scooped his competitors while also disseminating rhetoric that matched his own views.  (Most other newspapers printed in Boston included the response as part of their coverage when they distributed their next weekly edition, but that took several days or, in the case of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, printed by Loyalist Richard Draper, an entire week.)  Thomas previously published the governor’s speech as an extraordinary, dated and distributed on the same day as the weekly issue on Thursday, January 7.  In so doing, he upheld his pledge that the Massachusetts Spy was “Open to ALL Parties,” yet publishing the governor’s speech also kept colonizers informed about the dangers they faced from the narrative of recent events that Hutchinson constructed.  Releasing the committee’s response as its own extraordinary on a day that no other newspapers were published in Boston and announcing his plans to issue that extraordinary may have garnered more attention more quickly to the version of events that matched Thomas’s own views.  Patriots and imperial officials vied over how to represent what was occurring in Boston and throughout the colonies.  Thomas may have considered getting the committee’s response to the governor in print as quickly as possible an important counteroffensive against the governor’s speech that he published three weeks earlier.

Massachusetts Spy Extraordinary (January 29, 1773).

January 21

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 21, 1773).


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

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

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


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

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 274th 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 14

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 14, 1773).

“AN ORATION on the Beauties of Liberty.”

An advertisement in the January 14, 1773, editions of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter and the Massachusetts Spy announced the imminent publication and sale of a political pamphlet about “the Beauties of Liberty or the essential rights of the Americans.”  David Kneeland and Nathaniel Davis advised that the work was “Now in the press” and would be available in a few days.  The printers also noted that the pamphlet was “AN ORATION … Delivered at the second Baptist-Church in Boston, upon the last annual thanksgiving.”

Kneeland and Davis did not name the orator-author, perhaps expecting that many prospective customers already knew his identity as a result of having heard the sermon on liberty or heard about it from friends and acquaintances.  The title page attributed the Oration on the Beauties of Liberty to “A British Bostonian.”  The same author composed The American Alarm, published and advertised a few weeks earlier.  John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark identify both pamphlets as the work of John Allen, “a Baptist minister and recent émigré from England, politically disenchanted and personally discredited” for an incident involving a forged promissory note.[1]

According to Bumsted and Clark, the second of those pamphlets, 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” and the “immense popularity of this fiery attack on British policy – specifically the appointment of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the burning of the Gaspee – marked the author as an agitator of considerable importance.”[2]  Advertising may have contributed to the popularity of the pamphlet, especially if Kneeland and Davis carefully chose which newspapers carried their notice.  Isaiah Thomas, the printer of the Massachusetts Spy, had a reputation as an agitator.  Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printers of the Boston-Gazette did as well.  Following the initial announcement about the pamphlet on January 14, Kneeland and Davis placed an advertisement in the Boston-Gazette on January 18, but opted not to insert notices in the other two newspapers published in the city that day, the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  Their conceptions of the political sympathies of both the printers and readers of those newspapers may have played a role in selecting where to invest their limited funds for advertising.


[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): 562.

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