June 18

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

Jun 18 - 6:15:1769 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (June 15, 1769).

“ROBERT AITKEN, Bookseller, From Glasgow.”

Robert Aitken, a bookseller, kept shop in Philadelphia only briefly in 1769. In an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, he announced that he had “just now arrived” from Glasgow and “opened his store” on Front Street. His inventory consisted of “a valuable variety of books,” including literature, history, law, medicine, and divinity as well as novels, plays, songs, and ballads. Aitken offered something agreeable to the tastes of practically any reader.

To stimulate sales, the bookseller advised “Such who intend to furnish themselves with any of the above articles” to make their purchases as soon as possible or else miss their chance because he did not intend to remain in Pennsylvania long. Indeed, he did make “but a short stay” in Philadelphia, returning to Scotland before the year ended. Yet he must have been encouraged by the prospects available in Philadelphia. He returned two years later and remained in the city until his death in 1802.

In his History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas offers an overview of Aitken’s career. Born in Dalkeith, Scotland, Aitken apprenticed to a bookbinder in Edinburgh. After his initial sojourn as a bookseller in Philadelphia in 1769, he returned in 1771 and “followed the business of bookselling and binding, both before and after the revolution.”[1] In 1774, he became a printer. In January 1775 he founded the Pennsylvania Magazine, one of only seventeen magazines published in the colonies before the American Revolution.[2] It survived for a little over a year, ending its run in July 1776. He earned some renown for publishing an American bible in 1802, though Thomas contests the claim that it was the first printed in America.

Aitken Broadside
Robert Aitken, Advertising Broadside (Philadelphia: 1779). Courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

Like other eighteenth-century printers, Aitken contributed to the culture of advertising in early America. His ledger, now in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, lists several broadsides, billheads, and other printed materials distributed for the purposes of advertising that are otherwise unknown since, unfortunately, copies have not survived. He delivered the Pennsylvania Magazine enclosed in advertising wrappers; these are also rare, though some can be found among the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia. He also printed broadsides listing books he printed in Philadelphia. One also advised prospective clients that Aitken bound books and “PERFORMS All KINDS of PRINTING-WORK, PLAIN and ORNAMENTAL.” The ornamental printing on that broadside was a model of the advertising that Aitken could produce for his customers.  Aitken’s first newspaper advertisements in 1769 barely hinted on the influence he would exert over early American advertising, both as an advertiser of his own goods and services and as a producer of advertising for others who enlisted him in printing broadsides, handbills, magazine wrappers, trade cards, and other media intended to stimulate consumer interest.

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[1] Isaiah Thomas, History of Printing in America with a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; 1874; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 401.

[2] See “Chronological List of Magazines” in Frank Luther Mott, A History of Americasn Magazines, 1741-1850 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1939), 787-788.

May 23

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

May 23 - 5:23:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (May 23, 1769).

“3s. 4d. to be paid at Entrance.”

Eighteenth-century newspaper printers often treated the colophon as advertising space, promoting the goods and services they provided at the printing office. They encouraged readers to purchase subscriptions and place advertisements, though most remained silent about the costs for doing so. In May 1769, Samuel Hall, printer of the Essex Gazette, updated his colophon to indicate the price for subscriptions: “Six Shillings and Eight Pence per Annum.” Previously the colophon simply stated that the Essex Gazette was “Printed by S. HALL, at his Printing-Office a few Doors above the Town-House” in Salem.

When he updated his colophon, Hall actually reverted to the style that more closely resembled what had been in place at the beginning of the year. This time, however, instead of simply listing the yearly subscription fee he also specified “3s. 4d. to be paid at Entrance.” In other words, subscribers had to pay half of the subscription fee up front; Hall extended credit for a portion of the subscription, but he did not assume the risk for it entirely. Given how frequently printers throughout the colonies published notices calling on debtors to settle accounts, Hall may have wished to avoid some of that difficulty as well as the somewhat unseemly practice of threatening legal action against customers.

Consider also that he commenced publication of the Essex Gazette less than a year earlier. He managed to attract advertisers, but not nearly as many as placed notices in the several newspapers published in Boston. The number of advertisements in some even overflowed into half sheet supplements. Like other printers who understood the market for newspapers, Hall realized that he would likely attract more advertisers and revenue to sustain his enterprise if he expanded his roster of subscribers. After all, greater circulation meant a better return on investment for advertisers who placed their notices in front of more prospective customers. Hall likely sought to balance several concerns when he required only partial payment from subscribers: he enticed subscribers with credit, simultaneously took in some revenue and reduced his own risk, and made his newspaper more attractive to advertisers who would supply even more revenue.

May 21

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

May 21 - 5:18:1769 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (May 18, 1769).

“Particular care will be taken to do Advertisements, Blanks, &c. on very short notice.”

When Joseph Crukshank opened a printing office in Philadelphia in 1769, he attempted to attract clients by placing an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal. He pledged that his customers “may depend on having their work done in a neat and correct manner.” Crukshank anticipated that his job printing would include producing “Advertisements, Blanks, &c. on very short notice.” In that regard, he emphasized some of the same services as some newspaper printers regularly promoted in the colophons of their publications. The colophon on the final page of the Georgia Gazette, for instance, stated, “Hand-Bills, Advertisements, &c. printed at the shortest Notice.” Similarly, the colophon for the Pennsylvania Chronicle concluded with “Blanks and Hand-Bills in particular are done on the shortest Notice, in a neat and correct Manner.”

Printers generated revenue by printing handbills and other advertisements. For those who published newspapers, this revenue supplemented what they earned from subscriptions and advertisements inserted in the newspapers. For those who did not publish newspapers, like Crukshank, advertisements were an especially important component of their business. Handbills accounted for some of that work, but a variety of other sorts of advertising media came off of eighteenth-century printing presses, including trade cards, billheads, broadsides, furniture labels, catalogs, subscription notices, and magazine wrappers. Crukshank even promoted a catalog of the books he sold, inviting prospective customers to visit his shop to pick up their own copies.

All advertising could be considered ephemeral, but these other forms of advertising proved to be even more ephemeral than newspaper advertisements. Printers and others created repositories of eighteenth-century newspapers at the time of their creation, but handbills, trade cards, and other printed media deployed as advertising did not benefit from the same systematic collection and preservation. As a result, the sources for reconstructing the history of advertising in the colonial and revolutionary eras are skewed in favor of newspaper advertisements. Certainly newspaper advertisements were the most common form of advertising and merit particular attention, but they do not tell the entire story. The scattered billheads found among household accounts, labels still affixed to furniture, and other relatively rare eighteenth-century advertising media in modern libraries and archives belie their original abundance, according to the frequent references to “Hand-Bills, Advertisements, &c.” and “catalogues” in newspaper advertisements and colophons. Printers’ ledgers and correspondence also include references to advertisements with no known extant copies. These various sources indicate that, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, Americans encountered a rich visual and textual landscape of advertising as they went about their daily lives.

November 26

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

Nov 26 - 11:26:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 26, 1768).

“The GAZETTE is daily receiving an additional Number of Subscribers.”

John Carter became the sole proprietor of the Providence Gazette upon the retirement of his partner, Sarah Goddard, in November 1768. He immediately inserted an editorial note to that effect as the first item of the first page in the November 12 edition. His notice “To the PUBLIC,” however, functioned as more than a mere announcement. It also marketed the newspaper to readers, encouraging current subscribers to continue patronizing the publication and all readers to support the various enterprises undertaken at the printing office. Carter stated that he had purchased the “compleat and elegant Assortment of Types, and other Printing Materials.” He stood ready to pursue the printing trade “in all its various Branches,” including publishing the Providence Gazette. Carter promised “that no Consideration whatever shall induce him, in the Course of his Publications, to depart from the Principles of Rectitude and Honour.” He touted himself as an “impartial Printer” who provided a valuable public service to the entire colony.

Carter apparently considered his notice as much an advertisement as an editorial. Had it been an editorial he would have inserted it once and then discontinued it in favor of other content. He did, after all, promote the Providence Gazette as “a regular weekly Communication of the freshest and most interesting Intelligence.” Yet Carter published “Intelligence” that included news items, editorial content, and advertisements, including his own. His notice ran in five consecutive issues, not unlike paid advertisements contracted by other colonists. For regular readers of the Providence Gazette, it would have become as familiar as advertisements placed by Samuel Chace or Joseph Bucklin and Company. In subsequent issues it moved from the front page to the third or fourth page. No longer did it appear alongside news items exclusively. In most instances both news and advertising were featured on the same page as Carter’s notice, but at the end of its run it did appear on a page otherwise devoted entirely to advertising. The placement within each issue testifies to the various purposes Carter intended for his address “To the PUBLIC.”

November 12

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

Nov 12 - 11:12:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 12, 1768).

“To plead and defend the glorious Cause of Liberty … the Publisher trusts has been one grand Design of the PROVIDENCE GAZETTE.”

When John Carter assumed control of the Providence Gazette as the sole publisher on November 12, 1768, the colophon dropped Sarah Goddard’s name and slightly revised the description of services available at the printing office. “Subscriptions, Advertisements, Articles and Letters of Intelligence, &c. are received for this Paper.” Carter added articles, indicated his willingness to accept news items from readers and others beyond the network of printers and correspondents that previously supplied content for the newspaper. In addition, he expanded on the previous description of the printing work done at the office. Where Goddard and Carter had proclaimed that they did job printing “with Care and Expedition,” Carter now stated that he did that work “in a neat and correct manner, with Fidelity and Expedition.” This may not have been commentary on work previously produced at the printing office at “the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” but rather assurances that Carter took his new responsibilities seriously now that the partnership with Goddard had been dissolved and he alone ran the printing office.

In addition to updating the colophon, Carter placed a notice “To the PUBLIC” on the first page of his inaugural issue. He offered a brief history of the Providence Gazette following its revival after the repeal of the Stamp Act, an expensive undertaking given that the newspaper had difficulty attracting sufficient subscribers. He thanked those friends, subscribers, and employers who had supported the Providence Gazette and the printing office over the years, but also pledged “that nothing shall ever be wanting, on his Part, to merit a Continuance of their Approbation.”

Carter also took the opportunity to assert the primary purpose of the newspaper, the principle that justified its continuation even when expenses overwhelmed revenues. “To plead and defend the glorious Cause of Liberty,” Carter trumpeted, “and the inestimable Blessings derived from thence to Mankind … the Publisher trusts has been one grand Design of the PROVIDENCE GAZETTE: This, with whatever else may contribute to the Welfare of America, in general, or the Colony of Rhode-Island in particular, will continue to be the principal Ends which it is intended to promote.” Carter further indicated that the newspaper daily increased its number of subscribers, suggesting that readers in Providence and beyond endorsed its purpose and recognized the necessity of a newspaper that kept them apprised of current events and attempts to inhibit the liberty of the colonists. Although it took the form of an editorial, Carter’s address to the public was also an advertisement intended to boost his business. He leveraged politics and patriotism in his effort to increase readership of the Providence Gazette, arguing that the press played a vital role in maintaining liberty.

November 5

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

Nov 5 - 11:5:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 5, 1768).

“Sentiments of Gratitude to the Subscribers for the PROVIDENCE GAZETTE.”

The colophon of the Providence Gazette read “Printed by SARAH GODDARD, and JOHN CARTER, at the PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” for the last time on November 5, 1768. For over two years Sarah Goddard had been the publisher of the Providence Gazette, ever since it recommenced in August 1766 following the repeal of the Stamp Act. It had not been the Stamp Act, however, that caused the newspaper’s suspension. Instead, insufficient subscribers prompted William, Sarah’s son and the original publisher of the Providence Gazette, to suspend the newspaper in May 1765. He hoped that local readers would so miss the publication that enough would subscribe in order to revive it in six months. Then the Stamp Act made doing so prohibitively expensive. Once that legislation had been repealed and sufficient subscribers had pledged to support the newspaper, the Providence Gazette returned, but now published by Sarah rather than William. For approximately a year the colophon listed “SARAH GODDARD, and Company” as the printers, before Carter’s name replaced “and Company.”

On the occasion of her retirement, Goddard inserted a farewell address after the news and before the paid notices in her final issue as publisher. It served as an announcement, a note of appreciation, and a promotion of the continued publication of the Providence Gazette under the direction of Carter. She planned to relocate to Philadelphia, where William published the Pennsylvania Chronicle, though she would have been content “to have passed the Remainder of her Days in a Town where she has so many Friends and Acquaintance, for whom she entertains the highest Regard, and from whom she has received many Favours and Civilities.” Only the “more endearing Ties of Nature which exist between a Parent and an only Son” motivated her to leave Providence.

As she prepared for her departure, Goddard recognized both the subscribers and Carter for everything they had done, each in their own way, to make the Providence Gazette into a successful venture. For the subscribers and “all who have kindly favoured the [Printing] Office with their business” (including advertisers), she “acknowledges herself peculiarly obligated.” She then endorsed Carter, encouraging readers to continue their patronage of the newspaper now that he took the helm alone. She proclaimed that it was due to his “Diligence and Care” that “the GAZETTE has arrived to its present Degree of Reputation.” Combining her affection for the readers and her support for her successor, Goddard “takes the Liberty to request a Continuance of the public Favour in his behalf, which will be considered as an additional Mark of their Esteem conferred on her.”

Goddard’s notice served multiple purposes in the final issue of the Providence Gazette that bore her name as printer and publisher. It was simultaneously a news item, an editorial, and an advertisement. In fulfilling each of those functions, it promoted print culture to the residents of Providence and beyond.

September 28

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

Sep 28 - 9:28:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 28, 1768).

“BOOKS to be sold at the Printing-Office.”

Like other printers throughout colonial America, James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, often used his own publication to promote books, pamphlets, and other printed materials that he sold. Although printers sought to generate additional revenues as a result of running their own advertisements in their newspapers, Johnston frequently had an additional motive. Short advertisements for books or advertisements also served as filler to complete an otherwise short column in the Georgia Gazette. Such was the case for a two-line advertisement at the bottom of the first column on the third page of the September 28, 1768, edition of that newspaper. The notice, which Johnston inserted frequently, read in its entirety: “A FEW COPIES of the ACTS of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY passed last session to be sold by the printer of this paper.” Johnston had another slightly longer advertisement, that one for printed blanks (or forms), which he also inserted regularly. It appears that the type for both remained set so the compositor could simply insert them as necessary when an issue ran short of other content.

Given those circumstances, a lengthier advertisement for “BOOKS to be sold at the Printing-Office” that filled half a column (or one-quarter of a page) departed from the usual format for advertisements placed by the printer of the Georgia Gazette. The advertisement divided the column, creating two narrower columns that listed dozens of books by title. A price, neatly justified to the right, accompanied each title. For instance, “Revolutions in Portugal” sold for three shillings and six pence. “Gullivers travels, 2 vols.” sold for eight shillings. In that regard Johnston’s advertisement differed from those placed by other printers and booksellers. Most merely listed titles; very few informed prospective customers in advance what they could expect to pay. Although Johnston rarely published such an extensive catalog of books he sold, when he chose to do so he made a significant innovation to the standard method deployed by printers and booksellers who advertised in other newspapers published in other colonies. If he had sought only to fill remaining space in an issue that lacked sufficient content, a list of “BOOKS to be sold” would have served the purpose. Including the prices, as well as the format for doing so, required additional time, effort, and creative energy in writing the copy and setting the type.

July 15

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

Jul 15 - 7:15:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (July 15, 1768).

A large Assortment of BOOKS.

Although eighteenth-century booksellers sometimes issued book catalogs, either as broadsides or pamphlets, they much more often compiled catalogs for publication as newspaper advertisements. Booksellers who also happened to publish newspapers, like Robert Fowle, took advantage of their access to the press when they wished to promote their books, stationery, and other merchandise. Such printer-booksellers exercised the privilege of determining the contents of each issue, sometimes opting to reduce other content in favor of promoting their own wares. Alternately, inserting a book catalog, even an abbreviated list of titles, among the advertisements occasionally helped to fill the pages when printers lacked other content.

Fowle proclaimed that he stocked “A large Assortment of BOOKS” at his shop next door to the printing office in Portsmouth. To demonstrate that was indeed the case, his advertisement in the July 15, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette extended nearly an entire column and enumerated more than one-hundred titles. Such advertisements were part of a reading revolution that occurred in the eighteenth century as colonists transitioned from intensive reading of the Bible and devotional literature to extensive reading across many genres. Fowle’s list also included reference works as well as books meant for instruction. The printer-bookseller offered something for every interest or taste, including “small Books for Children.”

In some instances Fowle also promoted the material qualities of the books he sold. Some titles were “neatly bound & gilt,” making them especially attractive for display as well as reading. He offered “BIBLE of all sizes, some neatly bound and gilt.” Customers could choose whichever looked most appealing to them. If they did not care for the available bindings, they could purchase an unbound copy and have it bound to their specifications. Book catalogs and advertisements offered a variety of choices when it came to the physical aspects of reading materials, not just the contents.

Robert Fowle may have also published book catalogs in the 1760s, but his newspaper advertisements would have achieved far greater distribution. They alerted prospective customers to the “large Assortment” at his shop, introducing them to titles that they might not have previously considered but now wished to own (and perhaps even read) once they became aware of their availability.

July 1

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

Jul 1 - 7:1:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (July 1, 1768).

The Medicines are the best in their Kind.”

Like many other eighteenth-century printers, publishers, and booksellers, Timothy Green supplemented the income he generated via newspaper subscriptions, advertising fees, job printing, and book and stationery sales by selling other items not specifically related to the book trades. In the July 1, 1768, edition of the New-London Gazette, for instance, he placed an advertisement announcing that he sold “An Assortment of Patent Medicines.” He then listed several remedies that would have been very familiar to colonists: “Dr. Hill’s pectoral balsam of Honey,” “Elixer Bardana,” “Anderson’s or Scotch Pills; Turlington’s genuine Balsam of Life; Bateman’s Drops; Locker’s Pills; Godfry’s Cordial; [and] Stoughton’s Stomach Elixer.” He concluded with a bouble “&c.” – the eighteenth-century abbreviation for et cetera – to indicate that he stocked many more medicines. Green anticipated that these nostrums were so familiar to his readers and prospective customers that he did not need to explain which symptoms they cured, though he did briefly note that those who experienced rheumatism or gout should invest in in “Elixer Bardana.” He gave a slightly longer pitch for Dr. Hill’s balsam, promoting it as “a very useful Medicine in Consumptions and all Coughs and Complaints of the Breast, from whatever Cause.”

These patent medicines were brand names in England and its American colonies in the eighteenth century. They were widely available from apothecaries who specialized in compounding and selling medicines, merchants and shopkeepers who sold assortments of general merchandise, and those who followed other occupations (including printers) who sought to supplement their income. Shopkeepers and, especially, apothecaries regularly advertised that they filled orders for patent medicines that they received through the mail, making Bateman’s Drops and Godfrey’s Cordial and the rest even more widely available to colonial consumers. Realizing that he faced local and regional competition, Green offered incentives for customers to purchase their patent medicines from him. In a nota bene, he proclaimed, “The Medicines are the best in their Kind, and will be sold as low as in any retailing Store in America.” In an era of counterfeits, Green promised quality. He also addressed readers skeptical that he could match the prices of shopkeepers who sold patent medicines are part of their usual inventory or apothecaries who specialized in dispensing drugs. He prices were not merely reasonable; they were “as low as in any retailing Store in America.” Although he was a printer by trade, Green offered justifications for colonists to purchase patent medicines from him rather than others more versed in eighteenth-century medicines.

June 22

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

Jun 22 - 6:22:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (June 22, 1768).

“A FEW COPIES of the ACTS of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY passed last session to be sold by the printer of this paper.”

James Johnston squeezed as much content as possible onto the pages of the June 22, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. In addition to news items and paid advertisements, he inserted his own short notices – none more than four lines – at the bottom of columns on the second, third, and fourth pages. In the lengthiest, he sought an apprentice: “WANTED, AN honest, sober and industrious LAD, as an APPRENTICE to the PRINTING BUSINESS. Such a one will meet with good encouragement by applying to the printer of this paper.” In another, he announced, “A FEW COPIES of the ACTS of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY passed last session to be sold by the printer of this paper.” The shortest, an advertisement Johnston inserted frequently, simply stated, “BLANKS of most sorts to be sold at the Printing-Office.” In addition to those notices, the printer incorporated an advertisement into the colophon that appeared on the final page of each issue of the Georgia Gazette: “SAVANNAH: Printed by JAMES JOHNSTON, at the Printing-Office in Broughton-Street, where Advertisements, Letters of Intelligence, and Subscriptions for this Paper, are taken in.—Hand-Bills, Advertisements, &c. printed at the shortest Notice.”

Johnston did not need to insert these advertisements to fill the already densely formatted columns of the June 22 issue. He could have instead inserted more space between advertisements or news items that appeared on the page, a strategy that he sometimes deployed when he fell far short of sufficient content to complete an issue. His need for an apprentice may have been pressing, convincing him to run the longest of his notices in hopes of acquiring more assistance in the day-to-day operations of the printing office as quickly as possible. He may have also considered the shorter notices concerning items for sale urgent for generating revenue. After all, he had not published the Georgia Gazette the previous week, perhaps a symptom of financial difficulties or a potential cause of future disruptions that some additional sales in the printing office might remedy. Whatever the reasons for inserting these short advertisements, Johnston’s decision to do so demonstrates that eighteenth-century printers considered the pages of their newspapers malleable to their own needs. They earned a living and served their communities by publishing news and advertising, but they also tailored the format and contents to accommodate their own interests.