March 1

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

The Censor (February 29, 1772).

“NORTON’s American Mercantile INK-POWDER.”

Ezekiel Russell of Boston commenced publication of The Censor on November 23, 1771.  In an advertisement he inserted in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy a few weeks later, he described The Censor as “a New Political Paper,” though both colonizers and historians have since questioned whether Russell published a newspaper or a magazine or something else that defied categorization.  For several months, The Censor did not carry any advertisements, distinguishing it from every newspaper published in the colonies.  Eventually, according to Isaiah Thomas, printer and publisher of the Massachusetts Spy and author of The History of Printing in America (1810), Russell “made and effort to convert” The Censor “into a newspaper; and, with this view some of its last numbers were accompanied with a separate half sheet, containing a few articles of news and some advertisements.”[1]  An infusion of revenue from advertising did not prevent The Censor from folding a couple of months later since the Tory-leaning publication did not attract a broad readership in Boston.

The first of those half sheets accompanied the February 29, 1772, edition of The Censor.  Russell printed “Vol I.” and “NUMB. 15” in the masthead of both the standard issue and the supplement.  The latter featured four columns, two on the front and two on the back.  News from London, some of it reprinted from the London Gazette, filled the first three columns, leaving the entire fourth column for advertisements.  Only two of the four advertisements appear to have been paid notices, one seeking a farm to rent and another offering a farm for sale.  Russell inserted the other two advertisements in support of other activities undertaken at his printing office in Marlborough Street.  In one, he hawked “NORTON’s American Mercantile INK-POWDER.”  The other, a subscription notice, outlined “PROPOSALS For Printing … A Collection of POEMS, wrote at several times, and upon various occasions, by PHILLIS, a Negro Girl.”  Russell sought to publish about two dozen of Phillis Wheatley’s poems in a single volume “as soon as three Hundred Copes are subscribed for,” but his notices apparently did not generate sufficient attention to produce an American edition.  The following year, Wheatley traveled to London to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moralwith assistance from the Countess of Huntingdon.

Even when Russell introduced advertising into The Censor, his own notices accounted for the vast majority of such content.  Colonial printers often inserted advertisements into their own publications, sometimes two or three or more in a single newspaper issue.  Russell demonstrated that The Censor provided space for advertising, but the publication closed before he managed to cultivate a clientele of regular advertisers.  For only a couple of months in 1772, colonizers in Boston encountered advertising that circulated via yet another publication printed in the city.


[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers, ed. Marcus McCorison (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 153.