March 10

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

Mar 10 - 3:10:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 10, 1770).

“WEST’s … ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS.”

John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted a familiar advertisement in the March 10, 1770, edition.  It announced “WEST’s ALMANACKS, For the present Year, Likewise, his ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS, To be sold by the Printer hereof.”  Carter also happened to be the printer of both of those volumes penned by West, an astronomer, mathematician, and professor at Rhode Island College (now Brown University).  Given the practices of colonial printers, it might be tempting to assume that Carter inserted the short advertisement in order to complete the final column on the last page of that issue when lacking other content … or that he once again attempted to rid himself of surplus copies of an almanac that became more obsolete with each passing day.  Careful examination of the news items in that issue of the Providence Gazette, however, suggest that Carter may have had another motive.

The second page featured an item reprinted “From the MASSACHUSETTS GAZETTE” that filled an entire column and then some.  It detailed “THE COMET, which we saw in the beginning of September,” declaring that it disappeared from visibility “for near six weeks in the neighbourhood of the Sun” and then “shewed itself again towards the end of October on the other side of the Sun.”  Unsigned, this account was probably written by John Winthrop (1714-1779), described by Frederick E. Brasch as “America’s First Astronomer.”  According to Brasch, “In 1769 Winthrop published an account in the Boston journals of the observations of the brilliant comet which appeared on September 1st.  The remarkable feature of this comet was the length of its tail.”[1]  Colonial printers frequently copied news items and editorials from one newspaper to another as they traded their publications through exchange networks.

Carter may have glimpsed an opportunity to tie a book about astronomy he had recently published an account of a comet that he republished, hoping that the latter incited demand for the former.  He could have intended for Winthrop’s extensive description of the comet to whet the appetites of readers interested in astronomy.  He offered them more, reminding them that he sold West’s “ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS.”  The printer engaged in a sort of product placement.  Though certainly not as sophisticated as modern practices, it was an innovation in eighteenth-century America.

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[1] Frederick E. Brasch, “John Winthrop (1714-1779), America’s First Astronomer, and the Science of His Period, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 28, no. 165 (August-October 1916):  169.

November 16

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

Nov 16 - 11:16:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (November 16, 1767).

“To be sold by John Spooner, Choice Raisins.”

Considered on its own, John Spooner’s advertisement seems to do little by way of marketing. At a glance, this item appears to be merely an announcement. Its length – short enough to publish in a modern tweet (even a few days ago before Twitter doubled the numbers of characters) – did not allow Spooner to develop appeals to consumers, though he did make a nod toward quality by describing his raisins as “Choice.” The typography may have also drawn readers’ eyes, though the phrase “Choice Raisins” was no larger than the names of advertisers John Hunt, Henry Laughton, and Joshua Blanchard elsewhere on the same page.

The potential effectiveness of this advertisement cannot be understood by examining the copy and the layout alone. Taking into account its placement on the page relative to the specific content of other items, Spooner’s advertisement becomes much more powerful as an example of product placement in the eighteenth century.

It appeared in the middle column on the front page, immediately after a “Receipt

to make RAISIN WINE.” T. and J. Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, reported that they were “desired to publish” the recipe “for the benefit of the public,” though they did not indicate who made that recommendation. While Spooner may not have had any influence on the layout of news items and advertisements, the placement of his advertisement for “Choice Raisins” right after the recipe for raisin wine certainly seems like more than a fortunate coincidence. It raises suspicions that Spooner may not have considered it necessary to devise more extensive copy because he planned to have the recipe do the necessary marketing to incite demand for his raisins.

Even though it appeared as a separate and distinct item, perhaps the recipe should be considered one portion of a slightly longer advertisement. Some of its instructions suggested that consumers needed to obtain raisins as soon as possible if they wished to make their own raisin wine. The first line advised that readers should begin the process in October or November. Given that it appeared in print midway through November, readers needed to make haste getting started. That included purchasing the necessary supplies, especially raisins. The recipe eventually acknowledged that the process “may be begun in February or March,” but concluded with an assertion that “the fall is the best time.” The recipe then almost seamlessly flowed into Spooner’s advertisement for “Choice Raisins.”

The placement of the recipe and Spooner’s advertisement suggests deliberate product placement in an eighteenth-century newspaper. On its own, Spooner’s notice does not appear particularly innovative, but when considered in the context it may very well have deployed the most sophisticated marketing strategy of any advertisement in that issues of the Boston Evening-Post.

Nov 16 - 11:16:1767 Recipe Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (November 16, 1767).

August 17

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

Aug 17 - 8:17:1767 Boston Evening-Post
Boston Evening-Post (August 17, 1767).

“I … am of Opinion that they may be serviceable in many Disorders, if properly used.”

These items from the August 17, 1767, edition of the Boston Evening-Post blurred the lines between advertising and news content. The proprietor of “JACKSON’s Mineral Well in Boston” had previously advertised the spa in other newspapers. The “RULES” for the establishment, including the hours and rates, appeared in an advertisement on the final page of the issue that carried these announcements, easily identified as an advertisement among more than a score of other advertisements. These announcements, on the other hand, occupied a more liminal space on the third page, at the transition between the news content and advertising in the issue.

The notices had the appearance of news. They followed immediately after an extract from a “Letter from a Gentleman in London” and news from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but they preceded James McMaster’s advertisement for “A general Assortment of Scotch and English Goods” and the advertising that accounted for the remainder of the issue. In particular, the item by James Lloyd resembled a letter submitted to the newspaper rather than an advertisement. Lloyd sought to rectify an incorrect report that he described “Mr. Jackson’s mineral Spring” as being “of a noxious Quality.” Furthermore, he so wholly approved of the waters that he “recommended the Use of them” to his patients afflicted with various disorders. Was this news or an endorsement? The other item contained information that might have been considered general interest but did not explicitly address potential patrons.

Were these pieces local news items the editor selected as a service to readers? Or were they puff pieces and product placements that the proprietor of the “Mineral Well” had arranged to have printed in such close proximity to the news as to make them appear as though they came from a source that did not stand to generate revenue from inciting clients to visit the spa? If they were indeed advertisements, they could have been combined with verifiable advertisement printed on the following page.

Aug 17 - 8:17:1767 Page 3 of Boston Evening-Post
Third Page of Boston Evening-Post (August 17, 1767).