January 20

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

Jan 20 - 1:20:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 20, 1770).

“WEST’s ALMANACKS … To be sold by the Printer hereof.”

In late January 1770, John Carter, publisher of both the Providence Gazette and Benjamin West’s New-England Almanack, continued to advertise the almanac in the newspaper, though he shifted his strategy. He commenced the new year by running the lengthy advertisement that previously ran in the Providence Gazette for many weeks once again in the January 6 edition, but then he did not advertise the almanac the following week. An advertisement appeared once again in the January 20 edition, though much abbreviated. Rather than enticing prospective customers with an extensive description of the almanac’s useful and entertaining contents, the new advertisement simply announced, “WEST’s ALMANACKS, For the present Year … To be sold by the Printer hereof.”

Perhaps Carter weighed the space occupied in the Providence Gazette by continuing to insert the longer advertisement against how many surplus copies of the almanac remained in stock. As time passed, it became less likely that readers would purchase an almanac for 1770, but they did desire “the freshest ADVICES, Foreign and Domestic,” as the masthead described the news. Carter may have determined that he better served his subscribers and, in turn, his own business interests by designating space in subsequent issues for news items and editorials rather than an advertisement for an almanac with decreasing prospects of being purchased. He continued to promote the almanac in hopes of reducing his inventory, but he did so less intensively.

In the same short advertisement, Carter also noted that he sold West’s “ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS,” another publication previously the subject of more extensive advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette for multiple weeks. He also kept that title before the eyes of readers who might decide to purchase it, but devoted much less space to it.

The same short advertisement ran the following week, in the final issue of the newspaper for the month of January, but in the lower right corner of the final page, the very last item in that issue. Its placement may have been intended to leave an impression on readers who perused the Providence Gazette from start to finish, but it also suggests that Carter inserted the advertisement only after allocating space for news items and advertisements placed and paid for by other colonists. In compiling the contents of those issues of the Providence Gazette, he balanced his responsibilities as editor and publisher of the newspaper and his interests as printer and bookseller, choosing the shorter advertisements for the goods he sold.

January 13

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

Jan 13 1770 - 1:13:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 13, 1770).

“The COLLEGE about to be built in this Colony.”

Providence, Rhode Island, is now known as the home of Brown University, but that is not where the university has always been located. In 1770, six years after its founding, Providence became the permanent home of what was known as the Rhode Island College in its early years, later Brown University, in 1770. In March 1764, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved the charter for the “College or University in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” The Rhode Island College was only the seventh college founded in the colonies. Founded by Baptists, admission to the college was open to students of other denominations. According to “Brown’s History: A Timeline” on the university’s website, the corporation that would run the new college first met in Newport in September 1764. At that meeting, “Rhode Island Governor Stephen Hopkins (who would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence) was elected Chancellor.” James Manning served as the first president of the college, from 1765 until his death in 1791. He was also the college’s “first (and initially only) professor. He offered classes in the parsonage of the Baptist Church in Warren. The college held its first commencement in Warren in September 1769, not long before moving to Providence.

In preparation, Stephen Hopkins and John Brown, acting “in Behalf of the Committee for providing Materials and overseeing the Work” of erecting an edifice for the college in the city placed an advertisement in the January 13, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette to request that those who had already pledged funds and others who might be inclined to do so consider donating “such Materials fit for the Building, as they would choose to furnish in Lieu of their Subscriptions.” The move to Providence was not a foregone conclusion, but such “Materials fit for the Building” and “Subscriptions” had helped to convince the Corporation. According to the “Brown’s History: A Timeline,” Warren, Newport, and other communities in Rhode Island vied to become the permanent home of the college; the members of the Corporation “heard arguments in favor of the city’s central location, availability of materials and workers, number of libraries, and money pledged to support the effort.” The newspaper notice placed by Hopkins and Brown incorporated two of those factors. A variety of primary sources tell the story of the founding and first years of the Rhode Island College. Among those, newspaper advertisements testify to some of the fundraising efforts undertaken to establish the college in the city that has now been its home for 250 years.

January 6

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

Jan 6 1770 - 1:6:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 6, 1769).

NEW-ENGLAND ALMANACK … 1770.”

In the first issue of the Providence Gazette published in the new year, John Carter continued promoting “THE NEW-ENGLAND ALMANACK, OR, Lady’s and Gentleman’s DIARY, For the Year of our Lord CHRIST 1770.” He once again ran an advertisement that had been continuously appearing in the pages of the Providence Gazette for the past two months. Such was the lot for printers throughout the colonies. Most who published almanacs began each new year with surplus copies that became less useful with each passing week. Many attempted for weeks or even months to rid themselves of those extras rather than have them count against potential profits.

To that end, lengthy advertisements listing the various contents of almanacs served Carter and other printers well. Printers emphasized that these reference volumes contained not just the astronomical calculations for each day but also reference items, informative essays, and entertaining anecdotes that readers could enjoy throughout the year. Carter, for instance, attempted to entice customers with a list of contents that included “Courts in the New-England Governments, digested in a new and familiar Method,” “a curious Essay on Comets, with some Remarks on the extraordinary one that appeared in August and September last,” and “a beautiful Poem on Creation.” Even though the dates would pass for predictions about the weather and calculations for high tide, the other contents of the almanac retained their value and justified purchasing a copy days, weeks, or even months after the first of the year.

Carter’s first advertisement for 1770 included a modification that he made to the notice after it ran for a month. On December 2, 1769, he added a note at the end: “A considerable Allowance is made to those who take a Quantity.” In other words, the printer offered a discount for buying in volume to booksellers, shopkeepers, and others. He continued to offer this bargain in early January. Because such an investment became increasingly risky for retailers with each passing week, it became all the more imperative to underscore the many and varied features of the New-England Almanack. Carter aimed his advertisement at both consumers and retailers, perhaps even more eager to sell to “those who take a Quantity” than to customers who wished to acquire only a single copy.

December 30

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

Dec 30 - 12:30:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 30, 1769).

The Price of a Year’s paper is in itself trifling.”

As 1769 drew to a close, John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, placed two timely advertisements in the final edition for the year. In one, he continued marketing the “NEW-ENGLAND ALMANACK, OR, Lady’s and Gentleman’s DIARY, For the Year of our Lord CHRIST 1770.” In the other, he called on “Subscribers to this GAZETTE” to settle accounts, noting that “Numbers of them are now greatly in Arrear.”

Although January 1 marked a new year on the calendar, Carter asserted that November 9 “closed the Year” for most of his subscribers. In the seven weeks that had elapsed since then, many neglected to pay what they owed, “to the great Disadvantage of the Printer.” Carter lamented that during the past year “he has not received of his Subscribers a Sufficiency barely to defray the Expence of Paper on which the GAZETTE has been printed.” Yet he had expenses other than paper, including the “Maintenance and Pay of Workmen.” Like other printers who issued similar notices to subscribers, Carter suggested that publishing a newspaper did not pay for itself, at least not readily. If subscribers wished for the Providence Gazette to continue circulation, they had a duty to pay for that service to the community. Otherwise, “the Publication of this GAZETTE must be discontinued.”

Doing so required little sacrifice on the part of any particular subscriber. “The Price of a Year’s Paper is in itself trifling,” Carter argued, “and ‘tis certainly in the Power of every Subscriber once in Twelve Months to pay Seven Shillings.” He hypothesized that because the annual subscription fee was so low that it made it easy for subscribers to overlook it or even dismiss its importance. What did seven shillings one way or another matter to Carter? They mattered quite a bit, the printer answered, noting “that a Thousand such Trifles, when collected, make a considerable sum.”

Carter very likely exaggerated the number of subscribers for the Providence Gazette. He did so to make a point, but it served another purpose as well. The success of colonial newspapers depended at least as much on advertising revenue as subscription fees. Prospective advertisers needed to know that inserting notices in the Providence Gazette would likely yield returns on their investments because the newspaper circulated to so many subscribers throughout the colony and beyond. Inflating his circulation helped Carter encourage more advertising. That did not mean, however, that it would solve his financial difficulties. Although most of the notice addressed subscribers, Carter concluded by requesting that “EVERY PERSON indebted to him, either for the GAZETTE, Advertisements, or in any other Manner, immediately … settle and discharge his respective Account.” Apparently some advertisers were just as delinquent as subscribers when it came to paying their bills.

December 23

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

Dec 23 - 12:23:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 23, 1769).

“His Store in East-Greenwich.”

On December 23, 1769, Richard Matthewson published a newspaper advertisement promoting the “Neat Assortment of English and West-India Goods” he sold at his store near the courthouse in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. On the same day, James Mitchell Varnum also published a newspaper advertisement, that one informing the public that he “hath lately opened an Office … in the Character of Attorney at Law” in the town of East Greenwich. Both advertisements ran in the Providence Gazette. They demonstrate the widespread circulation of colonial newspapers.

For Matthewson and Varnum, the Providence Gazette, printed twenty miles distant from East Greenwich, was their local newspaper. In 1769, only two newspapers were printed in Rhode Island, the Newport Mercury by Solomon Southwick and the Providence Gazette by John Carter. Each served as clearinghouses for advertisements from beyond the busy ports where the printing offices were located. Matthewson expected that customers in East Greenwich and the surrounding villages would read the Providence Gazette and encounter his notice. Otherwise he would not have placed it. Similarly, Varnum anticipated that investing in an advertisement in the Providence Gazette would generate clients for his law office.

An explosion of printing occurred after the American Revolution. Printers established newspapers in smaller towns throughout the new United States in the final decades of the eighteenth century and even more as the nineteenth century progressed. In the period before the American Revolution, however, colonists had access to far fewer newspapers. Several newspapers emanated from the largest port cities, but they often served an entire colony or an even larger region. Some colonies had only one newspaper, such as the Georgia Gazette published in Savannah and the New-Hampshire Gazette published in Portsmouth. Their mastheads bore the name of the colony rather than the town where they were published. Only in New England were some newspapers named for cities and towns, suggesting a greater concentration of print in that region. (Newspaper published in New York served the entire colony, not just the bustling port.) Even when named for a town, however, newspapers like the Providence Gazette circulated throughout an entire colony and beyond. That made the Providence Gazette the local newspaper and appropriate place to advertise for Matthewson, Varnum, and others who lived in other parts of the colony.

December 16

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

Dec 16 - 12:16:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 16, 1769).

“RUN away … an Apprentice Lad.”

In December 1769, David Smith turned to the Providence Gazette when his apprentice, Eliazer Peck, “a Shoemaker by Trade,” departed without his permission. After Peck had been away for a week and Smith determined that he was unlikely to return of his own accord, he placed an advertisement that described the apprentice and offered a reward to anyone who “takes up and secures the said Apprentice, so as his Master may have him again.” Smith also advised that “All masters of Vessels are forbid to carry him off.” He did not want the delinquent apprentice further removing himself from his authority by sailing to another colony or elsewhere in the Atlantic world.

To aid in identifying the apprentice, Smith described both is physical features and the clothes he wore. He asked readers of the Providence Gazette to keep their eyes open for “a short thick-set Lad, round-shouldered, … full-faced.” Readers might also recognize his “brownish Coat, a short double-breasted Jacket, [and] blue knit Breeches.” If he did not acquire different garments, Peck could alter his appearance slightly by changing shirts; he took with him “two striped and one white Shirt.” To further aid in recognizing the apprentice, Smith gave his approximate age, “about 19 Years,” and hinted at his personality, noting he “has a Humour in his Eyes.”

Smith’s advertisement followed the same pattern as so many others that appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers throughout the colonies. That genre of notices described unfree laborers of various sorts: apprentices, indentured servants, convict servants, and enslaved men, women, and children. Such advertisements used the public prints as a mechanism of surveillance, encouraging colonists to closely examine people they encountered to determine if they matched the descriptions published in the most recent newspapers. These advertisements allowed those who already possessed greater authority and resources to exercise even more power by recruiting an entire community to aid them in capturing and returning runaway servants and apprentices and enslaved people who seized their own liberty by escaping from those who held them in bondage.

When they purchased advertising space in newspapers, colonists deployed the power of the press for various purposes. Some promoted the expansion of consumer culture by encouraging readers to acquire goods and services. Others posted legal notices for settling accounts with the estates of deceased colonists. Some offered employment opportunities. A good many utilized newspapers, the most widely circulated form of media of the period, to engage in surveillance of others, appealing to readers to carefully scrutinize their fellow colonists to detect and return runaways.

December 9

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

Dec 9 - 11:9:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 9, 1769).

“A Nail Manufactory at the Furnace Hope.”

The proprietors of the “Nail Manufactory at the Furnace Hope” placed an employment advertisement in the December 9, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. They sought “experienced Nail-Makers” who wished to be “usefully and advantageously employed” at the furnace in Scituate, “about 12 Miles from Providence.” The proprietors operated the furnace and aimed to establish a nail manufactory at a time that many colonists advocated for “domestic manufactures” as an alternative to goods imported from Britain. The nail manufactory had the potential to produce an important commodity for domestic consumption while simultaneously employing “A NUMBER” of colonists. The plan resonated with popular discourse of the period.

This “WANTED” advertisement appeared immediately below “A CARD” in which an unnamed “Daughter of Liberty” expressed an even more radical vision for the colonial economy. She addressed a “laudable Plan for building a Market-House,” expressing doubts about the eventual success of the venture. She suggested a different venture, making a “Proposal for … a Manufactory, for the Encouragement of Industry, and Employment of the Indigent and Indolent of both Sexes.” Rather than hiring experienced artisans, this manufactory would create jobs for vulnerable and marginalized colonists who did not necessarily possess specialized skills. The unnamed Daughter of Liberty envisioned a manufactory that would employ “both Sexes,” thus providing opportunities and income for women as well as men.

The author of this “CARD” described such a manufactory as “an Edifice which may be thought more immediately adapted to the Times,” predicting that it “would in a great Measure tend to avert the impending Ruin that threatens us.” Colonists could have thought of the “impending Ruin” in at least two ways. Given that the author identified herself (or perhaps himself) as a Daughter of Liberty, perhaps the “impending Ruin” referred to what would happen if the colonies did not develop their own industry and produce more of the goods they needed rather than rely on imports from Britain. The colonies experienced a trade deficit, a situation further exacerbated when Parliament imposed taxes on imported paper, glass, lead, paint, and tea in the Townshend Acts. That could have gone from bad to worse if Parliament decided on further taxation and regulation of commerce in the colonies. Yet the unnamed author may have had social rather than political concerns in mind, fearing the proliferation of “Indigent and Indolent” people who consumed too many resources on their way to becoming burdens that the community could no longer support. The author may have intended for readers to reach both conclusions, giving the “CARD” a political valence as a means of dressing up the less-than-charitable aspects of the commentary about the “Indigent and Indolent” in Rhode Island.

December 2

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

Dec 2 - 12:2:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (December 2, 1769).

“The Shop of the Subscribers was broke open, and sundry Things stolen.”

Several advertisements relayed stories of theft in the December 2, 1769, edition of the Providence GazetteEach had previously appeared, but the thieves had not been captured nor had the stolen goods been recovered.  In a notice dated October 17, Stephen Hopkins reported the theft of a cloak and wig.  Hall and Metcalf placed their own notice, dated November 4, to report that their shop “was broke open, and sundry Things stolen from thence.”  Jabez Bowen, Sr., even deployed a headline for his advertisement: “A THEFT.”  Dated November 11, Bowen’s notice listed several items of clothing stolen when his house was “broke open.”  By December 2, the stories in these advertisements became familiar to readers of the Providence Gazette.

The thefts in these advertisements may have helped to shape the contents of other parts of the newspaper. The December 2 edition began with an item addressed to the printer of the Providence Gazette.  “At a Time when Houses, Shops and Warehouses, are so frequently broke open,” an unnamed correspondent proclaimed, “and so many Thefts and Robberies are committed, both in Town and Country, by wicked vagrant Persons, unlawfully strolling about from Place to Place, perhaps it may tend to the public Good … in your next Paper to insert the following LAW concerning VAGRANTS, that it may be more generally known.”  A statute then filled the remainder of the column, excepting two lines announcing that the printer sold blanks.

Not only did advertisements seem to influence coverage of the news, the inclusion of this law helped establish a theme that ran through the entire issue.  Readers who perused it from start to finish first encountered the statute on the first page, Bowen’s notice and Hopkins’s notice on the third page, and Hall and Metcalf’s notice on the final page.  Even if they passed over the statute quickly, encountering the advertisements about thefts may have prompted some readers to return to the first page to read the statute more carefully.  The featured advertisements often demonstrate that news items and advertisements informed each other when it came to the imperial crisis and nonimportation agreements; however, those were not the only instances of advertisements relaying news or working in tandem with news.  Other sorts of current events inspired coverage that moved back and forth between news and advertising in colonial newspapers.

November 18

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

Nov 18 - 11:18:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (November 18, 1769).

“Containing, an accurate Ephemeris … Containing likewise, a beautiful Poem …”

In the fall of 1769, John Carter launched his marketing campaign for “THE NEW-ENGLAND ALMANACK, OR, Lady’s and Gentleman’s DIARY, For the Year of our Lord CHRIST 1770” with a full-page advertisement in the Providence Gazette. He likely posted a broadside around town as well. In subsequent weeks, Carter followed up the full-page advertisement with additional notices in the Providence Gazette; these included all of the same copy, but compressed to fit in a single column. Almanacs generated sufficient revenue for colonial printers to merit allocating considerable space in their newspapers to advertising them.

The contents of almanacs included reference items for information and other items for entertainment. Carter adopted a similar approach in his advertisements, publishing a poem for the enjoyment of prospective customers while also listing the contents of the almanac. Those contents included the usual astronomical data, such as the “Sun, Moon, and Seven Stars Rising and Setting; for every Day on the Year” and “Eclipses of the Luminaries,” as well as the tides. Other useful reference material included dates for the “Courts in the New-England Government,” “Times of the Stage-Coaches and Passage-Boats going and returning,” “a Table of Roads, enlarged and corrected.” Items intended for entertainment included “a beautiful Poem on Creation,” “a List of portentous Eclipses, with the remarkable Events that followed them,” and “a curious Essay on Comets, with some Remarks on the extraordinary one that appeared in August and September last.” Carter attempted to leverage potential ongoing interest in a recent event to spur sales of the almanac.

When it comes to retailing books, one modern marketing strategy harkens back to a method already in use by Carter and other printers in the eighteenth century. New technologies allow consumers to examine the table of contents online when considering whether to purchase a book, but publishing a table of contents as a means of bolstering interest in a book does not itself qualify as innovative. Modern marketers merely use new technologies to replicate a technique already in use for centuries. Certainly the strategy has been adopted more widely, given that the internet allows retailers more space than their counterparts could purchase in eighteenth-century newspapers, but the basic idea remains the same. Show consumers what a book contains and let the contents aid in selling the book. Carter and printers throughout the colonies regularly used that strategy for almanacs, books, and pamphlets in the eighteenth century.