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.

October 19

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

New-Hampshire Gazette (October 19, 1770).

“An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

The Boston Massacre and the death of George Whitefield both occurred in 1770, separated by almost six months. News of both events quickly spread via the colonial press with coverage commencing in Boston’s newspapers and then radiating out to other newspapers in other towns in New England and beyond.  In both instances, simultaneous acts of commemoration and commodification quickly followed.  Paul Revere and Henry Pelham marketed prints depicting the “Bloody Massacre” just weeks after British soldiers fired on a crowd in Boston, killing several people.  The commodification of Whitefield’s death happened more quickly and more extensively.  The Boston Massacre may be better remembered today as a result of the war for independence that it helped to inspire, but in 1770 it was the death of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening that captured far more attention when it came to creating and selling commemorative items.

Within a couple of weeks of Whitefield’s death on September 30, all five newspapers published in Boston printed advertisements for at least one commemorative item that colonists could purchase.  This commodification also found its way into the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, and the New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth.  Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, provided extensive coverage of Whitefield’s death and public reaction to it, devoting a significant amount of space to it.  Between news articles, verses in memory of the minister, and advertisements for commemorative items, contents about Whitefield accounted for more than ten percent of the column inches in the October 19 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, as they had in each issue since the minister’s death.  The Fowles ran a new article that proclaimed Whitefield’s “PATRIOTISM.”  For a second time, they inserted an advertisement for two broadsides for sale at the printing office.  They devoted an entire column, complete with mourning bands at top and bottom, to two poems reprinted from other newspapers and a new advertisement for yet another broadside.

That advertisement promoted the “Elegiac Poem … By Phillis, a Servant Girl.”  That “Servant Girl” was Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet who became one of the most influential poets in eighteenth-century American literature.  This broadside had already been advertised widely in Boston’s newspapers and the Essex Gazette.  In selling it in New Hampshire, the Fowles enlarged the community of commemoration that consumed the same items.  Just as they read the same news items and verses reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, colonists purchased, read, and displayed the same memorabilia from town to town, creating a more unified experience despite the distance that separated them.  The Fowles suggested that Wheatley’s poem “ought to be preserved” – not just purchased – “for two good Reasons.”  The first was “in Remembrance of that great and good man, Mr. Whitefield.”  In addition, customers should acquire a copy “on Account of its being w[ro]te by a Native of Africa, and yet would have done Honor to a Pope or Shakespere.”  The Fowles traded on the novelty of an enslaved poet who “had been but nine Years in this Country from Africa,” hoping that would incite greater demand for this commemorative item.

The Adverts 250 Project has featured advertisements related to the commodification of Whitefield’s death several times in recent weeks.  While many other kinds of advertisements appeared in the colonial press, this repetition is meant to demonstrate how widely printers and others marketed Whitefield memorabilia following his death.  The minister’s passing was a major news story, but one that also lent itself to widespread commemoration through commodification as printers sought to give consumers opportunities to express their grief and feel connected to the departed minister.

October 17

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (October 15, 1770).

“Great Allowance to travelling Traders, &c.”

Following the death of George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, on September 30, 1770, colonial printers quickly engaged in simultaneous acts of commemoration and commodification.  Radiating out from Boston, newspapers provided extensive coverage of Whitefield’s passing, in news articles reprinted from one newspaper to another, in verses dedicated to the minister, and in a hymn composed by Whitefield himself in anticipation of it one day being sung at his funeral.  In addition to widespread and widely reprinted commemorations of Whitefield, printers also hawked memorabilia that commodified his death.

The first instance appeared in the October 4 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, just days after residents of Boston received the news that Whitefield died at Newburyport.  The news coverage included an announcement of “A FUNERAL HYMN, wrote by the Rev’d Mr, Whitefield … Sold at Green & Russells.”  Within two weeks, every newspaper published in Massachusetts as well as the New-Hampshire Gazette published at least one freestanding advertisement that promoted a broadside that commemorated the minister.  Printers and others made available several broadsides for consumers, some of that memorabilia featuring the funeral hymn and others featuring poems dedicated to Whitefield.

The advertisements for those broadsides initially addressed individual consumers, but on October 15 the advertisements for the “ELEGIAC POEM” by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet, in both the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy included a new note at the end: “Great Allowance to travelling Traders, &c.”  Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles offered discounts to peddlers, shopkeepers, and anyone else who would purchase in bulk and then retail the broadside beyond Boston.  Just as news of Whitefield’s death spread through printing and reprinting of articles, verses, and hymns in newspapers that were distributed far beyond the towns in which they were published, the opportunities to engage in commemoration through commodification also widened.  Newspapers in Boston, Salem, and Portsmouth all ran advertisements for Whitefield memorabilia.  The producers of that memorabilia expected and encouraged further distribution into villages, offering discounts to facilitate the further dissemination of their product.

October 11

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

Massachusetts Spy (October 11, 1770).

“AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD … By PHILLIS.”

On October 11, 1770, coverage of George Whitefield’s death on September 30 continued to radiate out from Boston with news appearing in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal.  The commodification of Whitefield’s death intensified as well.  Both newspapers printed in Boston on that day, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and the Massachusetts Spy, carried advertisements for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

Phillis Wheatley, now recognized as one of the most significant poets in eighteenth-century America, composed the poem, though in the advertisements she was known as “PHILLIS, A servant girl of seventeen years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston.”  Referring to the young woman as a “servant girl” obscured the fact that she was enslaved by the Wheatley family.  The advertisements further explained that she “has been but nine years in this country from Africa.”  This event brought together Whitefield, the influential minister following his death, and Wheatley, the young poet near the beginning of her literary career.  Although both are well known to historians and others today, much of Wheatley’s acclaim came after her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784.  Arguably, Wheatley is more famous than Whitefield in twenty-first-century America, reversing their relative status compared to the eighteenth century.

In addition to the novelty of an African poet, Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles also promoted the image that adorned the broadside, proclaiming that it was “Embellished with a plate, representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port.”  Examine the Library Company of Philadelphia’s copy of Wheatley’s “Elegiac Poem,” including an introduction that doubled as the copy for the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, the woodcut depicting Whitefield, and black borders that symbolized mourning in the eighteenth century.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 11, 1770).

Wheatley’s poem sold by Russell and Boyles was not the only one advertised on October 11.  In a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, Richard Draper announced that he published “An Elegy to the Memory of that pious and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST The Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”  Exercising he prerogative as printer of that newspaper, Draper placed his advertisement before the one for the broadside with Wheatley’s poem and the woodcut of Whitefield.

Both poems celebrated Whitefield’s life and ministry.  Both gave colonial consumers an opportunity to mourn for Whitefield and feel better connected to his ministry, even if they had never had the chance to hear him preach.  Especially for those who had not witnessed Whitefield deliver a sermon, purchasing one of these broadsides allowed them to have an experience closely associated with Whitefield’s life by commemorating his death.  The printers who produced, marketed, and sold these broadsides simultaneously honored Whitefield’s memory and commodified his death, merging mourning and making money.