What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Orders from the West-Indies, or any part of America, &c. shall be faithfully complied with.”
When Richard Mason placed an advertisement for his “FIRE-ENGINES of the newest construction” in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the fall of 1768, he anticipated reaching an audience far beyond the residents of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Gazette, formerly published by Benjamin Franklin but then published by David Hall (Franklin’s partner who assumed control of the printing office upon his retirement from printing) and William Sellers, was one of the most successful and widely circulated newspapers in the colonies. It regularly included a supplement devoted entirely to advertising, sometimes two pages printing on both sides of a half sheet but often four pages that required an entire broadsheet and doubled the amount of content of a standard issue. The proportion of paid notices to other items made it clear that the Pennsylvania Gazette was a delivery mechanism for advertising that happened to carry some news.
And deliver advertising it did! After describing in detail the fire engines that he made and sold, Mason advised that “Orders from the West-Indies, or any part of America, &c. shall be faithfully complied with.” In addition, he “will also undertake to keep all the fire engines of this city in repair.” With a single advertisement, Mason strove to position himself in multiple markets, near and far. It comes as no surprise that he offered goods and services to residents of Philadelphia. His call for orders from the West Indies and mainland North America, however, suggests that he had a reasonable expectation that the Pennsylvania Gazette would find its way into the hands of readers and prospective customers in faraway places. Even if they did not maintain their own subscription, they might read the Pennsylvania Gazette at coffeehouses that made newspapers from Europe and the colonies available to their clients, or they might come into possession of a copy that passed from hand to hand via the networks of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic world. Mason may not have anticipated that the bulk of his business would derive “from the West-Indies, or any part of America,” but he recognized the possibility. Another advertisement on the same page offered “Freight or Passage” aboard the Clarendon bound for “KINGSTON, in JAMAICA.” In addition to goods and people, it likely carried news, including copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette and other newspapers, to other port cities.