July 16

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

Jul 16 - 7:16:1770 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (July 16, 1770).

“A NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON.”

The commemoration and commodification of the events of the American Revolution began years before shots were fired at Concord and Lexington.  Beginning in 1767, colonists marked the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act with celebrations and toasts.  Within weeks of the Boston Massacre in 1770, Paul Revere advertised and sold prints depicting the event, followed soon after by Henry Pelham.  A few months later, John Kneeland and Seth Adams announced the imminent publication of “A NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON, perpetrated in the Evening of the 5th of March 1770, by Soldiers of the 29th Regiment; which with the 14th Regiment were then Quartered there.”  The volume also included “some OBSERVATIONS on the STATE OF THINGS prior to that CATASTROPHE.”

This reprint “from the London Edition” was a departure for Kneeland and Adams.  In his monumental History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas remarked that the “principal work of Kneeland & Adams was psalters, spelling books, and psalm books, for booksellers.”[1]  What prompted Kneeland and Adams to reprint this particular book?  Were their motivations primarily pecuniary or political or both?  Thomas, often quick to comment of the politics of his fellow printers, did not note that either printer was known for promoting the patriot cause, but that did not necessarily mean that politics did not play a role in their decision to produce and market this “NARRATIVE of the late horrid MASSACRE.”  Financial interests almost certainly influenced them as well.  If Thomas did not recognize their press as one that advanced the patriot cause, then it seems unlikely that they would have printed the “NARRATIVE” solely as an act of commemoration and instruction for their fellow colonists.  Kneeland and Adams spotted an opportunity to make money in the commercial marketplace.  Regardless of their motivations, publishing this volume contributed to the discourse in the marketplace of ideas.  As printers, they helped shape public sentiment.

Thomas Fleet, Jr., and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, also played a role in making the “NARRATIVE” available to the public.  Their newspaper not only carried Kneeland and Adams’s advertisement but also gave it a prominent place.  The advertisements for the July 16 edition commenced with a notice calling on “All Persons indebted for this Paper” to settle accounts followed immediately by the advertisement for the “NARRATIVE.”  Such placement increased the likelihood that readers would take note of the advertisement if they read through the news and then opted to skip the paid notices.  A note that “Advertisements omitted shall be on our next” indicates that the Fleets made choices about which advertisements to include.  Maybe they selected this advertisement because it was timely, with publication scheduled for “Next WEDNESDAY,” or as a courtesy to fellow printers, but their own feelings about the Boston Massacre may have part of their decision.  Thomas described the Fleets as “good citizens” and lauded the “impartiality with which the paper was conducted, in those most critical times, the authenticity of its news, and the judicious selections of its publishers.”[2]  Even if they were not explicitly promoting the patriot cause, the Fleets likely saw the dissemination of additional information about the Boston Massacre as an important service.

Historians debate whether eighteenth-century printers intentionally sought to shape public opinion in the era of the American Revolution or whether they aimed to earn their living by printing political tracts, prints, and other items.  One does not necessarily exclude the other.  Regardless of the motivations of the printers, the publication of these materials and the advertisements that promoted them contributed to the debates of the period.

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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), 148.

[2] Thomas, History of Printing, 143.