May 19

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

New-York Journal (May 16, 1771).

Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business.”

When Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, discovered that that they had more content for the May 17, 1771, edition than space would usually allow, they opted to print several advertisements in the margins.  Although that format was not part of every issue of the Connecticut Journal or other eighteenth-century newspapers, printers and compositors did resort to placing advertisements in the margins fairly regularly.  On the previous day, for instance, John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, placed an advertisement in the right margin on the third page, running perpendicular to the rest of the text on that page.

A couple of features, however, distinguished Holt’s notice from the advertisements the Greens ran in the margins.  First, Holt’s advertisement concerned his own business.  “Whereas Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business,” Holt announced, “This is to desire the Customers for the said Paper, to let me know if any of them should fail of getting their Papers, till the present Carrier becomes acquainted with the Places where they are to be left.”  Holt placed his notice for the purpose of customer service, maintaining good relationships with subscribers following a change in personnel that potentially had an impact on whether or how quickly they received their newspaper.

Placing such a notice in the margin may have been quite intentional, a means of enhancing its visibility and increasing the likelihood that subscribers noticed it.  Unlike the Greens, Holt did distribute an additional half sheet for advertisements that did not fit in the standard issue.  He could have placed his own advertisement there, but doing so ran the risk of it getting separated from the rest of the issue.  In the margin of the third page, Holt’s notice became part of the standard four-page issue.  Its placement in the margin encouraged readers to peruse it in order to discover what kind of information received special treatment.

The format also indicated that Holt intended for his notice to appear in the margin from the start.  It ran in two lines that extended the length of the column.  The advertisements the Greens placed in the margins of the Connecticut Journal, on the other hand, were divided into several columns of a few lines each.  Those advertisements ran in a previous edition.  Rather than resetting type, the Greens made them fit in the margins by distributing what originally appeared in a single column across five short columns.  They did so out of necessity when they did not have sufficient space in the standard issue of their newspaper, whereas Holt did not transpose his notice from a traditional column to the margin.  From its conception, Holt had a different vision for his note to subscribers about disruptions in delivering the New-York Journal.

At a glance, advertisements printed in the margins of eighteenth-century newspapers look like they ended up there simply because compositors ran out of space.  Closer examination combined with knowledge of the production of newspapers, however, reveals the range of factors likely influenced decisions to place advertisements in the margins.  Different circumstances prompted the Greens to place advertisements in the margins than led Holt to do so.

April 18

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

New-York Journal (April 18, 1771).

“His Stay in this City will be but a few Weeks.”

Michael Poree, a surgeon dentist, occasionally placed newspaper advertisements in New York in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  He offered a variety of services, including “cleaning the Teeth,” “supplying New Ones,” and providing patent medicines related to dental care.  Poree did not, however, make the busy port his permanent residence.  Instead, he moved back and forth between New York and Philadelphia, serving patients in both cities.

In the spring of 1771, he published advertisements simultaneously in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Journal upon arriving in the city.  He began by renewing his acquaintance with former clients, extending “his hearty Thanks to the Gentlemen and Ladies of this City, for the Encouragement they have given him in his Profession.”  He then informed them “and others,” prospective new clients who needed dental care, that his stay in New York would be short, “but a few Weeks.”  He planned to return to Philadelphia and would not be back for nearly six months, not until “October next.”  Not unlike itinerant performers and peddlers, the surgeon dentists proclaimed that he would be in town for a limited time only as he persuaded customers to engage his services promptly or else miss their opportunity.

According to the colophon for the New-York Journal, Poree paid five shillings to insert his advertisement for four weeks.  He likely paid a similar amount to run the same notice in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  That he advertised in two newspapers indicated that he considered the cost well worth the investment in terms of attracting a sufficient number of clients to make his stay in New York profitable.  Experience may have taught him that he served a greater number of patients, new and returning, when he placed newspaper notices.  Documenting the reception of advertisements remains an elusive endeavor.  That an itinerant surgeon dentist like Poree repeatedly paid to inform the public of his services and his schedule, however, suggests that he considered advertising an effective means of promoting his business.

April 11

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

New-York Journal (April 11, 1771).

“A CONCERT … For the Benefit of a respectable but distressed Family of ORPHANS.”

An advertisement in the April 11, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal invited readers to participate in a philanthropic venture intended to aid children in need.  On the following Wednesday, the advertisement announced, “A CONCERT Of Vocal and Instrumental MUSICK For the Benefit of a respectable but distressed Family of ORPHANS” would take place at Bolton’s Tavern.  Those who wished to attend could purchase tickets in advance.

Altruism, however, did not seem to be the sole motivation for planning or attending this concert.  Those involved in the venture performed their status (or the status they aspired to achieve) in the community at the same time that the musicians performed for their entertainment.  The newspaper notice declared that “several LADIES of DISTINCTION” determined that the “Family of ORPHANS” merited assistance.  Readers who purchased tickets and attended the concert could join the ranks of those elite patrons of unfortunate orphans, at least temporarily during the performance at Bolton’s Tavern.  The concert presented an opportunity to be seen by others who also supported the cause and would later remember who else attended.  Indeed, the advertisement challenged “every Person of Sensibility and Benevolence” to come to the aid of the orphans by attending the concert.  Participating in this endeavor “For the Benefit” of an impoverished family also accrued benefits to those who purchased tickets.

The advertisement also commented on the status of the orphans whose plight inspired “LADIES of DISTINCTION” in New York to intervene on their behalf.  Those orphans, the advertisement assured readers, were indeed deserving of such charity, being “respectable but distressed.”  That phrase paralleled the invocation of “Sensibility and Benevolence” deployed to describe those who might attend the concert.  Both phrases suggested that philanthropy involved more than giving to others who found themselves in adverse conditions.  Instead, the circumstances of how this “Family of ORPHANS” came to require charity as well as the ability of benefactors to discern who warranted assistance (and who did not deserve their attention) each shaped attitudes and expectations about the concert at Bolton’s Tavern.

March 28

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

New-York Journal (March 28, 1771).

“A SERMON, on the Death of the Revs. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

The simultaneous commemoration and commodification of George Whitefield’s death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, continued six months later in the March 28, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal.  John Holt, printer of that newspaper, announced that he “Just published … A SERMON, on the Death of the Rev.d Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, preached at his own Tabernacle in Moor-Fields, &c. by the Reverend Mr. JOHN WESLEY.”  A week earlier, Holt attempted to generate demand in advance of publication with a notice that the sermon was “Now in the Press.”  Coverage of Whitefield’s death, coverage that likely spurred sales of commemorative items, tapered off by the end of 1770 once newspaper printers throughout the colonies reprinted accounts that originated in Boston and then printed and reprinted news of local reactions.  When reports of reactions in England arrived after several months, printers like Holt had new opportunities to continue coverage of Whitefield’s death and to profit from commodifying that event.

Immediately following the death of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, printers, booksellers, and others marketed a variety of memorabilia, including poems, hymnals, and funeral sermons.  The production and dissemination of these items supplemented other mourning rituals, while also giving consumers opportunities to experience through their purchases events they did not witness.  Such was the case with publishing funeral sermons, especially those originally delivered in faraway places.  Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, for instance, advertised a funeral sermon given in Savannah in the neighboring colony of Georgia.  Holt gave consumers access to a sermon preached much farther away when he reprinted Wesley’s sermon.  This enhanced the sense of collective mourning.  Colonists were not alone in honoring Whitefield’s life and grieving his death; instead, they were the first to express their sorrow, eventually joined by counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.  Reprinting and selling Wesley’s funeral sermon was not merely a matter of honoring the departed minister.  Holt also provided a proxy for participating in commemorations in England, thus making American consumers feel like part of a transatlantic community of the faithful who mourned Whitefield.

March 21

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

New-York Journal (March 21, 1771).

“THE celebrated Sermon preached … on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. George Whitefield … By JOHN WESLEY.”

Word of George Whitefield’s death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, quickly spread through the colonies as well as across the Atlantic.  Newspapers in the colonies covered local reaction to the loss of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  In turn, they also reprinted coverage from one to another, further enhancing a sense of collective mourning.  It took longer to receive word of reactions in England, but by late March the colonial press carried those updates as well.  On March 18, 1771, the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy both carried an “Extract of a Letter from the Right Honourable the COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON,” Whitefield’s patron, “received a few Days ago by the December Packet.”  The countess mourned the “Faithful Minister of the Gospel.”

A few days later, residents of New York learned of another response to Whitefield’s death from across the Atlantic.  John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, announced that he would soon publish the “celebrated Sermon preached” by John Wesley, a leader of the Methodist movement within the Church of England, “on Sunday the 18th of November last, on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, at the Chapel in Tottenham Court-Road, and the Tabernacle near Moorfields.”  According to the Wesley Center Online, “The Sermon was at once published in London; and a reprint was issued in Dublin, also dated 1770.”  Commemorations of Whitefield’s death quickly resulted in commodification in England and Ireland, just as in the colonies.  That commodification continued when American printers came into possession of copies of the sermon.  Holt was the first advertise an American edition of Wesley’s sermon, but he was not the only one to take it to press.  John Fleeming in Boston also published the sermon.  Whitefield’s death was one of the most significant news events of 1770.  It prompted mourning on both sides of the Atlantic, but also presented opportunities for commodification.

March 3

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

New-York Journal (February 21, 1771).

“To all the Friends of LIBERTY … 61 71.”

Last week the Adverts 250 Project featured this advertisement calling on “all the Friends of LIBERTY” to mark the fifth anniversary of “the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act.”  That initial examination of the advertisement focused on the importance that colonists placed on commemorating the events the culminated in the American Revolution even before the skirmishes took place at Lexington and Concord or the Continental Congress declared independence.  Another aspect of this advertisement, however, caught my attention when I first selected it for the Adverts 250 Project.

The notation on the final line – “61 71” – presented a mystery.  Similar notations appeared on the final lines of most advertisements in the New-York Journal.  Either the printer, John Holt, or the compositor inserted these numbers to indicate the first and last issues in which an advertisement should appear.  They replicated the last two digits of the issue numbers of those newspapers.  For example, the February 28, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal was “NUMB. 1469,” so any advertisements with “69” as the first number in the notation ran for the first time in that issue and any advertisements with “69” as the second number in the notation ran for the last time.  The notations, therefore, were intended for those who worked in the printing office rather than for readers.

I noticed the “61 71” notation for a couple of reasons.  First, it indicated that the advertisement ran for eleven weeks, an odd number in general, made even more odd by the fact that Holt’s pricing structure of “Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after” (listed in the colophon every week) resulted in most advertisements running for four weeks because advertisers incurred the lowest possible cost.  Eleven weeks seemed like a long time to run the advertisement, but it had interesting implications.  Issue 1461 happened to be the first issue of the new year, published on January 3, 1771.  Had those who planned the commemorations of the fifth anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act considered the event worthy of notice so far in advance?

While possible, that did not seem right.  After all, I previously examined every issue of the New-York Journal published in January and February 1771 to identify advertisements to feature on the Adverts 250 Project and advertisements about enslaved people for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  I did not recall seeing this particular advertisement in any of those issues before selecting it from the February 21 edition.  I doubted that I had managed to skip over it in seven consecutive issues of the New-York Journal.  When I examined each edition in search of this particular advertisement, I discovered that it did not appear prior to February 21.  It ran in four consecutive issues, starting on February 21 and concluding on March 14, in issue 1471.  The advertisement appeared in the last edition of the New-York Journal before the commemoration of the repeal and the celebration of “so general and important a Cause.”

It turned out that the advertisement first appeared in issue 1468, not 1461.  The notation contained an error, probably the result of the compositor substituting the last digit of the second issue for the last issue of the first.  Few if any readers of the New-York Journal likely noticed this error.  After all, such notations in any advertisements were not intended for them.  For this historian of advertising and early American newspapers more than two centuries later, however, the notation contained a lot of potential meaning, especially in terms of how extensively those who planned the commemoration of the repeal of the Stamp Act advertised the upcoming fifth anniversary.  Although the advertisement did not as many times or for as long as the notation suggested, it still signaled an important act of remembering on the part of many colonists.

February 24

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

New-York Journal (February 21, 1771).

“Celebrating the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act.”

Just as Americans participated in the commodification of events associated with the American Revolution several years before the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington, they also staged commemorations of those events long before declaring independence.  After the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766, for instance, colonists marked the anniversary the following year and continued to do so.  They celebrated not only the repeal of that odious measure but also the successful organizing and resistance strategies that convinced Parliament to repeal it.  Many among the gentry engaged in legislative resistance, including the House of Burgesses passing the Virginia Resolves and representatives from several colonies signing petitions at the Stamp Act Congress.  Merchants pursued economic resistance, leveraging commercial pressure on their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic by refusing to import goods while the Stamp Act remained in effect.  Popular protests erupted throughout the colonies, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Savannah, Georgia.  In newspapers, circular letters, pamphlets, broadsides, and handbills, the colonial press covered all of these actions.

As the fifth anniversary of the repeal approached, an advertisement addressed to “all the Friends of LIBERTY” appeared in the February 24, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal.  “THIS early Notice is given,” the advertisement proclaimed,” that for celebrating the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act, ample Provision will be made on the 18th March next, at HAMPDEN-HALL, that the Anniversary may be kept, with proper Festivity and Decency.”  Celebrating such anniversaries was important.  Doing so helped to keep colonists vigilant when it came to other abuses.  In the time since the repeal of the Stamp Act, the colonies experienced another round of objectionable taxation in the form of duties on imported goods imposed by the Townshend Acts.  Widespread resistance, including another round of nonimportation agreements, eventually resulted in the repeal of most of those duties, but the tax on tea remained.  In addition, British soldiers were quartered in Boston, a factor that contributed to the Boston Massacre in March 1770.  Newspapers throughout the colonies covered that event and the subsequent trials, many of them also carrying advertisements for pamphlets and prints related to the murders in Boston.  When colonists in New York gathered to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, “so general and important a Cause,” they likely recollected other events that occurred since, each of them as “oppressive” as the Stamp Act.  The anniversary of that first major victory against Parliament provided an opportunity for reflection on other challenges the colonies experienced and continued to face.

February 10

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

New-York Journal (February 7, 1771).

“A great many other articles, suitable for traveling merchants.”

John Watson, a merchant, sold a variety of goods at his store on Cart and Horse Street in New York.  In an advertisement in the February 7, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal, he listed dozens of items ranging from textiles to “Mens and womens shoes” to “Men, women and boys, best silk gloves and mitts” to “Table spoons, and best Holland quills.”  This catalog of goods, arranged in two columns, presented consumers an array of choices that Watson hoped would entice them to visit his store and make selections according to their tastes.  He also promised that they would encounter an even greater assortment of merchandise, “a great many other articles … too tedious to enumerate.”  Many merchants and shopkeepers who emphasized consumer choice with their lengthy litanies of goods doubled down on that appeal by proclaiming that even with as much space as their advertisements occupied in colonial newspapers it still was not enough to do justice to everything in their inventories.

Watson did not address consumers exclusively.  He declared that he sold his wares “wholesale or retail,” supplying shopkeepers, peddlers, and others who purchased to sell again as well as working directly with consumers.  He noted that he stocked goods “suitable for traveling merchants” to carry to smaller towns and into the countryside.  Participating in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century was not a privilege reserved for residents of the largest port cities.  Colonists did not need to live in New York and visit Watson’s store in order to purchase the fabrics, ribbons, buttons, snuff boxes, playing cards, and other items he imported and sold.  Instead, those who lived at a distance made purchases via the post or at local shops or from peddlers and “traveling merchants” who helped in distributing consumer goods beyond the major ports.  Bustling cities like New York, Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia certainly had higher concentrations of shops, affording ready access to consumer goods to local residents, but those places did not have monopolies when it came to the rituals of consumption.  Watson, like many other merchants, used newspaper advertising for multiple purposes, seeking to incite demand among local customers while simultaneously distributing goods to retailers and peddlers who made them available to even greater numbers of customers.

January 3

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

New-York Journal (January 3, 1770).

“The promotion of which vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”

Robert Bell was one of the most innovative, industrious, and influential booksellers in eighteenth-century America, known for the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and the entertainment he provided at auctions.  Bell’s auctions were events, public spectacles that amused those in attendance.  The bookseller was also known for his work in creating and promoting a distinctly American market for books, especially after the revolution.  He got started on that enterprise, however, several years before the colonies declared independence from Britain.

In the first issue of the New-York Journal published in 1771, Bell launched a new advertising campaign that announced book auctions on Friday and Saturday evenings.  In addition to giving information about the auctions, he devoted half of the advertisement to a nota bene about the “American Edition of Robertson’s Charles the Fifth.”  Rather than purchase imported alternatives, Bell asserted that the “real friends to the progress of Literary entertainment, and to the extension of useful Manufactures in a young country” would acquire the edition produced in the colonies.  Over the course of his career, Bell became known for the verbose and convoluted prose he deployed in his marketing materials.  He used labyrinthine language even by eighteenth-century standards, including in this advertisement for an American edition.  Consumers were already familiar with arguments in favor of domestic manufactures in the wake of boycotting imported goods, but Bell approached the endeavor with more verve than proponents when he trumped that “the promotion” of American products “vivifieth individuals, and tendeth towards the elevation and enriching of THE LAND WE LIVE IN.”  The bookseller advocated on behalf of American commerce and American culture simultaneously, arguing that consumers could enhance both through the decisions they made when buying books.

Bell did not merely present customers with options for reading “Divinity, History, Novels, and Entertainment.”  Instead, he challenged them to think about how their participation in the marketplace could aid the American cause and contribute to the formation of a distinctly American identity.  He intensified those arguments as his career continued, building on marketing strategies from the early 1770s.

December 27

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

New-York Journal (December 27, 1770).


In the late colonial period, most advertisers did not prompt prospective customers to think of their merchandise in association with Christmas gifts.  In the late 1760s, bookseller and stationer Garrat Noel of New York did place advertisements in which he listed books that he considered “proper for Christmas Presents and New-Year’s Gifts,” though he was usually alone in his efforts to establish a connection between those holidays and consumption in the public prints.  The appropriately-named Noel addressed “those who are willing to be generous on the Occasion.”  He encouraged that generosity by charging “extraordinary low Prices” for items he envisioned as gifts.  He ran what has become familiar as a holiday sale long before other retailers adopted the custom.  In the late 1760s, Noel was often the only advertiser from New England to Georgia who made an explicit connection between Christmas and giving gifts.

Although Noel placed newspaper advertisements in December 1770, he did not mention Christmas or encourage giving the books he sold as gifts.  One of his competitors, however, seized the opportunity to market “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” in the December 27 edition of the New-York Journal.  James Rivington was best known as a bookseller, but, like many others in his occupation, he stocked a variety of other merchandise as well.  He published an extensive list of items “which may be thought proper Presents to and from Ladies and Gentlemen at this Season, when the Heart is more peculiarly enlarged.”  He offered everything from “NECKLACES, ear-rings, and hair pins” to “Beautiful polished leather snuff boxes” to “Siler plated tea urns” to “Dress swords and belts of all kinds.”  For some items, Rivington made appeals to sentimentality, such as “Lockets for the custody of the dear creature’s hair.”  He also advised prospective customers that he stocked items at various prices to fit their budgets.  For instance, he charged “from six shillings to £10” for tooth pick cases and snuff boxes” and “from 7 shillings to seven dollars” for lockets.  Rivington concluded his advertisement with a promise that he also carried “a myriad of other articles,” suggesting to consumers that they could find just the right “NEW-YEARS PRESENTS” when they visited his shop facing the Coffee-House Bridge.

The Christmas and New Year holidays did not animate a season of advertising associated with purchasing and exchanging gifts in the late colonial period.  Such marketing strategies were largely absent, but not completely unknown.  A small number of retailers experimented with making explicit connections between their merchandise and celebrating the holidays.  In the process, they emphasized prices that facilitated generosity.  They also encouraged sentimentality among consumers.  Although subdued by today’s standards, their efforts to market the holidays could be seen as precursors to more extensive advertising campaigns in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.