What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Such Kind of Pieces … ought to be accompanied with some Cash.”
The shipping news from the customs house in Salem usually preceded advertisements in the Essex Gazette. That was the case in the August 22, 1769, edition, but the printer also inserted a brief notice immediately before the shipping news. “Before the Printer hereof published the Piece from A Lover of Impartiality,” Samuel Hall stated, “he should be glad to speak with the Author.—Such Kind of Pieces, whether in Vindication of Clergy or Laity, ought to be accompanied with some Cash.” With this notice, Hall revealed an important aspect of his business model. Apparently subscriptions and advertisements were not the only means of generating revenue for the Essex Gazette. The printer apparently also accepted payment for certain editorials as well.
Purchasing advertising space allowed colonists to shape the contents of newspapers, injecting their own views on politics and society into publications otherwise edited by printers. Advertisements that included news or opinion appeared among other paid notices, usually with the name of the advertiser appended. This made it clear to readers that advertisers paid to have such content circulate via the public prints. Editorials or letters, on the other hand, did not include devices indicating that they may have been placed only after authors made payment rather than as the result of printers selecting content they considered important or interesting for readers. Any such items reprinted from one newspaper to another almost certainly did not specify that someone had originally paid to see it in print. To what extent did colonial readers realize this was the case? Hall did not attempt to hide it, but neither did he nor other printers regularly indicate that some items (other than advertisements) ran in newspapers as a result of financial transactions in the printing office. Even if colonists did realize that some editorials appeared because authors paid for the space, how did they go about distinguishing which items fit that description? In an age of accusations about “fake news” shaping public discourse, Hall’s notice about authors paying to insert editorials in the Essex Gazette demonstrates that those who consume information – no matter which media deliver it – have been challenged to cultivate good practices for information literacy since the founding of the nation.