May 6

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 4, 1772).

“The elegant POEM, which the Committee of the Town of Boston had voted unanimously to be Published with the ORATION.”

The May 4, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy carried a brief advertisement for “The elegant POEM, which the Committee of the Town of Boston had voted unanimously to be Published with the ORATION.”  The “ORATION” referred to the address that Dr. Joseph Warren delivered on the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, an address already published and advertised in several newspapers in Boston and beyond.  Why, if “the Committee of the Town of Boston had voted unanimously” to publish it with Warren’s oration, had that not occurred?

The advertisement did not name the author of the poem, but many readers knew that James Allen wrote it.  Both the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society state that the poem “was suppressed due to doubts about Allen’s patriotism and later was republished by Allen’s friends, with extracts from another of his poems, as ‘The Retrospect.’”  That narrative draws on commentary that accompanied the poems as well as Samuel Kettell’sSpecimens of American Poetry (1829) and Evert A. Duyckinck and George L. Duyckinck’s Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1856).  More recently, Lewis Leary argues that Allen’s “friends” had motives other than commemorating the Bloody Massacre in King Street or demonstrating Allen’s patriotism in the wake of the committee composed of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other prominent patriots reversing course about publishing the poem in the wake of chatter that called into question Allen’s politics.

According to Leary, Allen’s poem about the Boston Massacre and “The Retrospect” must be considered together, especially because “the extracts from ‘The Retrospect’ are unabashedly loyalist, praising Britain’s military force, her selfless defense of her colonies, and benevolent rule over them.”  Furthermore, the commentary by Allen’s supposed friends “does indeed clear ‘the authors character as to his politics’ and exhibits his ‘political soundness,’ but that character and that soundness are loyalist, not patriot.”[1]

Postscript to the Censor (May 2, 1772).

Significantly, Ezekiel Russell published the pamphlet that contained Allen’s poem, “The Retrospect,” and commentary from Allen’s “friends.”  He also published the Censor, a weekly political magazine that supported the British government and expressed Tory sympathies.  The Postscript that accompanied the final issue of the Censor included a much more extensive advertisement for Allen’s poem, one that included extracts from both the commentary and “The Retrospect.”  The portion of the commentary inserted in the advertisement describes how Allen “describes the triumphant March of the British Soldiers to the CAPITAL” and then “makes the following Reflections, which no less characterise their Humanity than their Heroism” in “The Retrospect.”  The advertisement praises the “ingeniousAUTHOR” for his “luxuriant Representations of the Valour and Achievement of the British Soldiery.”

Leary argues that Allen’s “friends” sought to discredit Adams, Hancock, and other patriots for being so easily fooled by his poem about the Boston Massacre that seemed to say what they wanted to hear.  In that regard, the “publication of his Poem and its antithetical counterpart seems to have been one among many minor skirmishes in the verbal battles between Tories and Patriots on the eve of the Revolution, in which skirmish Allen seems to have been more pawn than participant.”  To that end, the “purpose of his ‘friends’ seems clearly to have been to discomfit the committee for its vacillation on the publication of the poem and to expose patriot leaders in Boston as men who could be duped by a skillful manipulator of words.”  Allen’s “friends,” according to Leary, did seek to clarify his politics, but with the intention of “certify[ing] him, certainly to his embarrassment, a Loyalist clever enough to mislead his patriot townspeople.”[2]

Still, that may not tell the entire story.  Leary argues that “what evidence is available suggests that James Allen as a younger man, like many colonials, had been enthusiastically a loyal British subject, grateful for Britain’s protection of her colonies, but that after the horror of the massacre in Boston on March 5, 1770, had become at thirty-six a patriot who could bitterly challenge the British.”[3]  In 1785, Allen’s poem about the Boston Massacre appeared in a collection of orations that commemorated the event, including Warren’s address.  By then, the editors who compiled the anthology recognized that Allen wrote the poem “when his feelings, like those of every other free-born American were alive at the inhuman murders of their countrymen.”[4]  The controversy had passed, Allen’s poem no longer questioned as an insincere lamentation belied by his earlier work.

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[1] Lewis Leary, “The ‘Friends’ of James Allen, or, How Partial Truth Is No Truth at All,” Early American Literature 15, no. 2 (Fall 1980): 166-167.

[2] Leary, “‘Friends’ of James Allen,” 168-169.

[3] Leary, “‘Friends’ of James Allen,” 168.

[4] Quoted in Leary, “‘Friends’ of James Allen,” 170.

May 2

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

Postscript to the Censor (May 2, 1772).

“Just Arrived, The Cream of Goods.”

Gilbert DeBlois placed his advertisement for “The Cream of Goods” imported from England in several newspapers published in Boston in the spring of 1772, including the Censor.  Ezekiel Russell commenced publication of the Censor, more “a political magazine rather than a newspaper,” in November 1771.[1]  He eventually supplemented it with a half sheet Postscript that looked more like a newspaper.  Instead of carrying essays and editorials exclusively, it also featured news and advertising.  Those efforts to diversify the publication, however, did not broaden its appeal to readers in Boston.  As Isaiah Thomas, the ardent patriot who published the Massachusetts Spy and wrote The History of Printing in America (1810), noted, “the circulation of the paper was confined to a few of their own party,” Tories who sympathized with the British government.[2]  Given his politics, DeBlois numbered among that party.  He eventually left Boston as part of the British evacuation in 1776.  He was among the advertisers in the final issue of the Censordistributed by Russell.

Thomas made his contempt for the Censor clear, demeaning it for being “discontinued before the revolution of a year from its first publication.”  In a footnote, Thomas also provided details about a notorious contributor to the Censor.  “Dr. Benjamin Church, a reputed whig, who when the Revolutionary war commenced was appointed surgeon general of the American army, but was soon after arrested and confined, being detected in a traitorous correspondence with the British army in Boston, I have been informed by a very respectable person whom I have long known, was a writer for the Censor.”  Thomas did not reveal his source, but he did state that “[t]his person, then an apprentice to Russell, was employed to convey, in a secret manner, the doctor’s manuscripts to the press, and proof sheets from the press to the doctor.”  Thomas asserted that Church engaged in skullduggery long before his infamous letter to General Thomas Gage was intercepted and decoded in October 1775.  Some historians have suggested that Church’s case was more nuanced than Thomas allowed, as did Church at the time.  Thomas apparently had little use for Church’s rationalizations that he deliberately sent misinformation to the British to ward off attacks against patriots who lacked ammunition, just as he had little use for the Censor.  For a few months, the Postscript to the Censor increased the number of publications that disseminated advertising in Boston, but Russell did not attract enough subscribers or advertisers to continue producing the weekly political magazine and its supplement.

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[1] Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society, 1947), 275.

[2] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 285.

April 25

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

Postscript to the Censor (April 25, 1772).

“The Cream of Goods … at his Cheap Shop.”

Customers could expect only the best merchandise when they visited the “Cheap Shop” operated by Gilbert Deblois.  In an advertisement in the April 25, 1772, edition of the Postscript to the Censor, Deblois trumpeted that he carried “The Cream of Goods” selected by “the most able merchants in the city of LONDON,” purchased at “the different manufactories in England,” and imported to Boston.  His inventory included “a great variety” of “English, Scots, Irish, Dutch & India Goods.”

In describing his business as a “Cheap Shop,” Deblois did not mean that he sold inferior goods.  Instead, both buyers and sellers understood “cheap” to mean inexpensive or a good value for the money.  They did not associate “cheap” with poor quality.  As a result, prospective customers did not notice any contradiction in Deblois’s claim that he sold “The Cream of Goods … at his Cheap Shop.”

The merchant set such good prices for his merchandise, both wholesale and retail, that he refused to haggle with his customers.  He declared his determination “to sell very cheap,” but also asserted that he “makes no abatement on the prices first asked.”  He expected buyers to be satisfied that they acquired the best possible bargains for “The Cream of Goods” without having to negotiate for further discounts.  To that end, he informed readers that his customers “may depend no shop in town shall under sell him.”

Deblois was so confident in this claim that he circulated it widely, placing the same advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.  Doing so significantly expanded the distribution of his advertisement, especially since the Censor was struggling to attract subscribers and would cease publication less than a month after Deblois submitted his notice to multiple printing offices.  A Tory who eventually evacuated Boston with the British in 1776, Deblois may have appreciated the political stance represented in the Censor, but as a man of business he chose to advertise in newspapers that did not share his perspective.

April 18

GUEST CURATOR: Lizzie Peterson

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

Postscript to the Censor (April 18, 1772).

“WOOL and TOW CARDS.”

While examining advertisements to research for this project, this one about wool and tow cards caught my eye, I wanted to learn about what “cards” and “carding” meant in early America.  According to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” women participated in “the endless work of carding, combing, spinning, reeling, doubling, dyeing, bleaching, spooling, warping, and weaving,” suggesting that “cards” and “carding” had something to do with preparing textiles, since all of the of the other verbs deal with preparing textiles or making clothes.[1]

I learned that the term “card” is not a type of card we know today like a greeting card or playing card. “Cards” and “carding” during the eighteenth century referred to the tool and process people used to spin and prepare textiles. Wool and tow are both types of fibers made into textiles. Tow comes from flax or hemp and wool is hair from animals, particularly sheep.  According to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, “The carding process is part of preparing will for spinning into yarn. Wool is brushed between two hand carders to align fibers in the same direction.”  Ulrich points out that women did this work.

Eighteenth-century wool card. Courtesy National Museum of American History.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Colonizers knew exactly what James Longden sold when they saw his advertisement for “ALL SORTS OF WOOL and TOW CARDS” in the Postscript to the Censor in the spring of 1772.  They knew the intended purpose of wool and tow cards.  Most had probably used cards themselves or observed others using them.  Colonizers encountered wool and tow cards as they went about their daily lives.  What were once such familiar items prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, no longer remain so familiar to most people, including students in my Revolutionary America classes.  That is why I do not assign advertisements to them when they serve as guest curators but instead instruct them to choose advertisements that look interesting to them.  I especially encourage them to find advertisements that confuse them because they do not know what kinds of products were being sold.  They then have to do the detective work, the historical research, to make meaning of their advertisements.  Throughout the process, we have conversations that further enhance their understanding of the historical context.

Lizzie did an exemplary job in selecting an advertisement and doing the research to understand it, even locating a photo of an eighteenth-century wool card similar to those advertised by Longden.  This certainly enhanced discussions from class, especially our focus on how women participated in politics during the era of the American Revolution even though they could not vote or hold office.  In particular, we examined women’s roles as producers and consumers.  We discussed spinning bees as public rituals as well as less visible labor that took place within households as women made homespun garments as alternatives to imported goods.  Colonizers acknowledged that women fulfilled their patriotic duty through their everyday labors.  In addition, women participated in politics through the decisions they made as consumers, especially when nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements were in effect.  Longden offered women wool and tow cards “made in this Province,” promising that they were “as cheap, or cheaper than can be imported” as well as “equal to any in Great-Britain.”  The politics of purchasing and using wool and tow cards made by Longden, however, remained just a little bit more abstract without knowing the purpose of those items.  As a result of Lizzie’s choice of advertisement, she and her classmates gained a better understanding of both women’s domestic labor and how women participated in politics.

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[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 55, no. 1 (January 1998): 20.

April 11

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

Postscript to the Censor (April 11, 1772).

“Jackson’s VARIETY-STORE.”

Ezekiel Russell continued publication of the Censor, a political newssheet that expressed Tory sympathies that lasted only a few months, in April 1772.  He inserted this introduction in the April 11 edition: “As the Petition of the CLERGY, &c. for a repeal of the THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES, has been a subject of much speculation in England as well as America, we now offer our Readers said Petition with the Debates in the HOUSE OF COMMONS thereon, not doubting but it will be acceptable to many of them.”  The debate concerned the doctrinal positions adopted by the Anglican Church during the English Reformation.  At the conclusion of the petition, Russell informed readers that “The Proceedings of the House of Commons upon the above Petition are in the Postscript.”

He referred to the Postscript to the Censor, a half sheet that much more resembled a newspaper than the Censor did.  The format accounted for some of the distinction.  Russell organized the content in the Postscript into two columns per page, but did not use multiple columns in the Censor.  In addition, the Postscript also carried advertisements, a defining feature of early American newspapers.  No advertisements appeared in the Censor.  When Russell first distributed the Postscriptwith the Censor, most of the advertisements promoted goods and services available at his printing office.  He gradually managed to cultivate a more substantial clientele of advertisers, though never the numbers who placed notices in the several newspapers published in Boston in the early 1770s.

Still, the number of advertisements and the amount of space they occupied on April 11 exceeded any of the previous issues.  Fourteen advertisements filled nearly two of the four pages of the Postscript.  Only a couple sought to incite interest in goods sold at Russell’s printing office.  George Deblois, Smith and Atkinson, and others who advertised regularly in other newspapers took a chance on seeking customers who read the Postscript, though political sympathies may have played a role in that decision for William Jackson, the Loyalist who ran a shop at the Brazen Head.  Russell might have gained additional advertisers over time had he not ceased publication of the Censor three weeks later.  He seemed to gain advertisers though not enough readers to sustain his newssheet, prompting him to indefinitely suspend it.  For a short period in the spring of 1772, residents of Boston had access to six weekly publications that disseminated advertising, more than in any other urban port in the colonies.

March 28

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

The Censor (March 28, 1772).

The hurry of our other business prevents giving the Publick an additional half sheet.”

When Ezekiel Russell began publishing The Censor, a political magazine, in the fall of 1771, he did not include advertising as a means of generating revenue.  Each weekly issue of the publication consisted of four pages, two printed on each side of a broadsheet then folded in half.  In that regard, The Censor resembled newspapers of the period, but it did not carry short news articles reprinted from other newspapers, prices current, shipping news from the customs house, poetry, advertisements, and other content that appeared in other newspapers.  Instead, Russell used The Censor to disseminate political essays that expressed a Tory perspective on current events in Boston, often only one essay per issue.  Sometimes essays spanned more than one issue.  After a few months, Russell began distributing a half sheet Postscript to the Censor with content, including advertising, that more closely resembled what appeared in other newspapers published in Boston.

Russell devoted the entire March 28, 1772, edition of The Censor to a letter from a correspondent who defended Ebenezer Richardson, the customs official who killed eleven-year-old Christopher Seider.  On the night of February 22, 1770, Richardson fired into a crowd of protestors who objected to merchants bringing an end to their nonimportation agreement before Parliament repealed import duties on tea.  His shots killed Seider.  The boy’s funeral became an occasion for further anti-British demonstrations.  Less than two weeks later, heightened tensions overflowed into the Boston Massacre.  A jury convicted Richardson of killing Seider, but the authorities chose to imprison rather than execute him.  The king eventually pardoned Richardson and offered him a new post in Philadelphia in 1773, but he was still imprisoned in 1772 when a correspondent of The Censor examined his case.

That correspondent’s letter did not fit in a single issue of The Censor.  Russell concluded with a brief note that “The Remainder must be omitted until next Week.”  He further explained that “the hurry of our other business prevents giving the Publick an additional half sheet” with other news, advertising, and other content.  He did find space, however, to insert a short teaser about a forthcoming publication.  “It is with pleasure the Printer can promise his Customers,” Russell declared, “that in a few days will be published, a PAMPHLET, intimately connected with the present Times, and perhaps one of the most agreeable Entertainments ever offered the sensible Publick.”  He did not further elaborate on the topic of that pamphlet, but his announcement suggested that he could be savvy in his efforts to incite interest and anticipation among consumers.  In this instance, Russell emphasized his own marketing but did not tend to the paid notices that would have appeared in the “additional half sheet.”  Isaiah Thomas, the patriot printer of the Massachusetts Spy and author of The History of Printing in America (1810), claimed that The Censor quickly failed because Russell published unpopular political views.  While that may have been the primary reason, it also looks as though Russell did not sufficiently attend to the business aspects of publishing it.  Not distributing the “additional half sheet” meant delayed advertising revenues and dissatisfied advertisers.

March 14

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

Postscript to the Censor (March 14, 1772).

“WILLIAM WINGFIELD, At his Shop in Union-Street, BOSTON.”

Like many advertisers who resided in town with more than newspaper, shopkeeper William Wingfield attempted to capture a larger share of the market by inserting notices into multiple newspapers.  On Monday, March 9, 1772, he ran an advertisement for a “General Assortment” of textiles and “all sorts of Goods suitable for all seasons” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  On Thursday, March 12, he placed the same advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  By then, his advertisement ran in both newspapers for several weeks.  Wingfield ended the week with the same advertisement in the Postscript to the Censor on Saturday, March 14.  Ezekiel Russell, the printer of The Censor, had only recently expanded that magazine of political essays to include a half sheet supplement that featured news and advertising.  Wingfield was among the first colonizers to place an advertisement in that supplement.

What prompted Wingfield to make that decision?  Russell had not established an extensive circulation for The Censor and its supplement.  Indeed, the publication folded just two months later because Russell could not find sufficient readers in Boston who appreciated the Tory perspective promoted in his magazine.  If Wingfield wanted to place his advertisement before greater numbers of readers and prospective customers, then he would have been better served by placing it in the Boston Evening-Post or the Massachusetts Spy, two other newspapers published in Boston at the time.  Politics did not seem to be the defining factor.  The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter were friendly to the British government, suggesting that Wingfield may have made a political decision when expanding his advertising campaign to the Postscript to the Censor.  However, he had also been publishing his advertisement in the Boston-Gazette.  Benjamin Edes and John Gill, the printers of that newspaper, consistently advocated the patriot cause, making the Boston-Gazette as much of a nuisance to colonial officials as Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy.  Before inserting advertisements in the Postscript to the Censor became an option, Wingfield already distributed his advertisements among newspapers that took various political positions.  Choosing to advertise in the Postscript to the Censor neither bolstered his affiliation with publications that expressed Tory views nor diversified his outreach to consumers according to the politics of the publications they read.  What else might have explained his decision to start advertising in the Postscript to the Censor but not the Boston Evening-Post or the Massachusetts Spy?  Perhaps Russell, the printer, offered good deals on advertising in his attempts to cultivate a new clientele.  In his advertisement, Wingfield noted that he carried “too many [goods] to enumerate in an Advertisement,” suggesting a certain frugality compared to competitors who published much longer lists of their merchandise.  If Russell offered bargains on advertising, then Wingfield might have seized the opportunity.  Whatever his reasons for advertising in the Postscript to the Censor, Wingfield expanded his advertising campaign from three of the six weekly publications in Boston to four of the six in March 1772.