What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
““ADvertisements of a common Length will be inserted 3 Weeks in this Paper at Three Shillings and Nine Pence Lawful Money.”
How much did advertising in colonial newspapers cost? Printers rarely published advertising rates in their newspapers. A few did include this information in the colophon that appeared at the bottom of the final page of each issue, but most did not make their rates so readily available. On occasion, some printers published their plan of publication, including advertising rates, in the first edition as part of launching a newspaper, but did not incorporate that information into subsequent issues. That made Solomon Southwick’s advertisement in the August 14, 1769, edition of the Newport Mercury all the more notable. It did not receive a place of prominence on the first page or in the colophon. Instead, it appeared among other advertisements on the final page, sandwiched between Elizabeth Mumford’s advertisement that John Remmington continued making shoes at her shop following the death of her husband and John Fryer’s notice about a house for rent. The first column of the first page consisted almost entirely of advertising; Southwick could have increased the visibility for his own advertisement about advertising rates (as well as a call for advertisers who had not yet made payment to settle accounts) by inserting it as the first item readers would encounter.
Despite his decision not to exercise his privilege as printer of the Newport Mercury, Southwick did provide important information for prospective advertisers (and for historians of print culture in early America). He informed readers that “ADvertisements of a common Length will be inserted 3 Weeks in this Paper at Three Shillings and Nine Pence Lawful Money, and Nine Pence for every Week after.” His pricing scheme corresponded to those published by other printers. He charged a flat rate for setting the type and inserting an advertisement for three weeks. Some printers ran advertisements for four weeks, but most chose three weeks as the standard for an initial run. At three shillings and nine pence, this cost advertisers nine pence for each insertion and eighteen pence for setting type. This system allowed Southwick to generate revenues based on both labor involved in preparing an advertisement for publication and the space it occupied in the newspaper. His own advertisement, which did not appear the following week, would have cost the printing office twenty-seven pence – eighteen pence for setting the type and nine pence for the space in the August 14 edition – but Southwick likely considered it a good investment if it brought in new advertisers or convinced delinquent customers to make payments on their outstanding accounts.
Although eighteenth-century printers frequently advertised books, stationery, printed blanks, and other goods they sold, they rarely advertised advertising as a service they provided. Many may not have considered it necessary since the pages of their newspapers practically overflowed with advertisements. Those that did reveal advertising rates in the public prints demonstrated a high level of consistency in their business practices, charging an initial fee for setting type and running an advertisement for a specified number of weeks and then another fee for each additional week. According to his own advertisement, Southwick adopted just such a plan.