March 2

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

Providence Gazette (March 2, 1771).

“Advertisements should be inserted in the Newport and Providence News-Papers, calling upon all Persons to bring in their Old Tenor Bills.”

Colonists often found information relayed in advertisements just as newsworthy or important as the contents of articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in early American newspapers.  Consider, for instance, an announcement by Joseph Clarke, General Treasurer of Rhode Island, on behalf of the General Assembly that ran in multiple issues of the Newport Mercury and Providence Gazette in 1771.  Clarke informed readers that “from and after the First Day of January, 1771, no Old Tenor Bills should be received in Payment for Goods sold, or paid away for any Goods bought, but that they should wholly cease passing as a Currency” in Rhode Island “and be all carried into the Treasury.”  In turn, the General Treasurer would issue “a Treasurer’s Note or Notes, for the Sums they shall deliver into the General Treasury.”  Colonists had six months to tend to this matter.  Clarke warned that “all those Persons who shall neglect to bring in their bills … shall lose the Benefit of having them exchanged.”

As part of this act, the General Assembly specified that “Advertisements should be inserted in the Newport and Providence News-Papers, calling upon all Persons to bring in their Old Tenor Bills.”  The Newport Mercury and the Providence Gazette were the only newspapers published in the colony at the time.  Both ran the advertisement widely.  It appeared in the first issue of the Providence Gazette published in 1771 and then in eighteen consecutive issues of that weekly newspapers.  From January through June, it appeared in every issue except May 25 and June 1 and 15.  Curiously, it also ran in three issues in July and one in August, after the deadline for exchanging bills passed.  Perhaps Clarke or the General Assembly wanted readers to be aware they had missed their opportunity.

Not as many issues of the Newport Mercury are available via Early American Newspapers, likely the result of few extant issues in research libraries and historical societies.  For the first six months, only the editions from February 25, March 6 and 20, and June 17 and 24 are available in their entirety.  The first two pages of the May 27 issue are available, but not the last two.  Clarke’s advertisement ran in each of the issues available in their entirety.  In the February 25 edition, a notation at the end specified “(51),” matching the issue number, 651.  Printers and compositors often included such notations to keep track of when an advertisement first appeared or should last appear, aiding them in determining which content to include when they prepared new editions.  Both iterations of the advertisement for March bore “(40)” as a notation.  The advertisements published in June, in the final weeks before the deadline for exchanging bills,” both had notations for “(40 – 68).”  The “68” corresponded to the issue number, 668, for the final issue for June.  The “40,” on the other hand extended back to the middle of December, earlier than the advertisement would have initially appeared.  It may have been an estimation to remind the printer or compositor of the longevity of the notice.

Whatever the explanation for that small inaccuracy, the “(40 – 68)” notation strongly suggests that the advertisement ran consistently in the Newport Mercury over the course of the first six months of 1771.  It certainly appeared in the Providence Gazette almost every week during the same period.  The General Assembly depended on delivering news to colonists via advertisements in the colony’s two newspapers, realizing that readers would consult the notices in addition to news accounts and editorials for important information.

February 23

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

Providence Gazette (February 23, 1771).

“Brass candlesticks.”

Joseph Russell and William Russell regularly placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Like many other purveyors of goods, they listed some of the many items in stock at their store, including “Mens silk hose,” “Womens newest fashioned furr’d hats,” “Brass candlesticks,” and “Looking glasses.”  In so doing, they demonstrated to consumers the wide array of choices available to them.  The descriptions of some items further underscored that prospective customers could choose according to their own tastes and desires, such as “SCarlet, claret, tyrean, mixed, drab, cinnamon, green & blue broadcloths” and “Sewing silks of all colours.”  The Russells’ notice in the Providence Gazette constituted a catalog of their merchandise in the format of a newspaper advertisement.

In addition to making an appeal to consumer choice, the Russells also deployed graphic design to draw attention to their advertisement and aid readers in navigating it.  Their notice featured two columns of goods with a line down the center.  Only one or two items appeared on each line, creating white space that made the entire advertisement easier to read.  In contrast, most other items in the Providence Gazette (and other colonial newspapers) ran in dense blocks of text.  News items almost invariably took that form.  Most advertisements did as well, including the majority that enumerated the many items offered for sale.  As a result, the design of the Russells’ advertisement likely caused readers to notice it before they actively set about reading it, encouraging them to look more closely.  When they did read it, they could scan the contents more efficiently than working through a lengthy and dense paragraph.  Primitive by modern standards, the two-column design distinguished the Russells’ advertisement from most other items in the newspaper.

That design cost more money since newspaper printers charged by the amount of space advertisements occupied rather than the number of words.  The Russells apparently considered the additional expense worth the investment if it increased the number of readers who engaged with their advertisement.

February 16

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

Providence Gazette (February 16, 1771).

“ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Week for Four Shillings.”

In the eighteenth century, some printers used the colophon, the portion of the newspaper devoted to publication information, as advertisements for their own goods and services.  John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, did so in 1770.  He listed his location as “PROVIDENCE, in New-England … at his PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeare’s Head … where all Manner of PRINTING-WORK is performed on reasonable Terms, with Fidelity and Expedition.”  Other printers hawked books, stationery, and other goods in their colophons.

Most printers did not list their advertising rates, but those who did placed that information in the colophon.  Carter updated his colophon with the first issue of the Providence Gazette published in 1771. He no longer promoted printing work but instead announced that “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful, and Ninepence for each Week after; longer Ones in Proportion.”  Carter adopted a pricing structure similar to that of other newspapers:  a flat fee for setting type and running an advertisement for a set number of weeks (usually three, but sometimes four) and additional fees for each subsequent insertion.  Longer advertisements cost proportionally more.  If the space an advertisement occupied in the Providence Gazette in those subsequent weeks was worth nine pence, that meant that Carter charged twenty-one pence for setting type.  The four shillings (forty-eight pence) for placing an advertisement amounted to twenty-seven pence for the three weeks it ran in the newspaper with the remainder for preparing the notice for publication.

The information about advertising in Carter’s colophon included one variation that did not appear in most others.  He specified that advertisements were to be “accompanied with the Pay.”  Eighteenth-century printers, like other purveyors of goods and services, frequently extended credit to their customers.  They also regularly published notices calling on subscribers, advertisers, and others to settle accounts, sometimes pleading and other times threatening legal action.  In the February 15, 1771, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, for instance, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle inserted a lengthy notice addressed to “those who neglect and are indebted for many Years Papers.”  The printers warned that those subscribers “may depend on being sued.”  When it came to advertisers, Carter apparently wanted to avoid finding himself in a similar position, insisting that advertisements must be “accompanied with the Pay.”  Considering that advertising constituted an important revenue stream for early American newspaper printers, this likely had beneficial effects on other aspects of the business Carter ran from his printing office.

February 9

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

Providence Gazette (February 9, 1771).

“HIS Majesty’s Post-Master General … has been pleased to add a fifth Packet-Boat to the Station between Falmouth and New-York.”

In January and February 1771, an advertisement that ran in newspapers published in several colonies informed colonists of an improvement to the communications infrastructure that connected them to Britain.  The postmaster general added “a fifth Packet-Boat to the Station between Falmouth and New-York” for the purpose of “better facilitating … Correspondence between Great-Britain and America.”  The advertisement gave notice that the mail “will be closed at the Post-Office in New-York … on the first Tuesday in every Month” and then “dispatched by a Packet the next Day for Falmouth.”

Dated “New-York, Jan. 22, 1771,” this advertisement appeared in the January 28 edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  The notice next ran in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal on January 31.  (It may have been in the January 24 edition of the New-York Journal; a page is missing from the digitized copy.)  The advertisement soon found its way into the Providence Gazette on February 2 and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on February 4.  By then, it ran in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury a second time, though it did not run in every newspaper more than once.  The advertisement next appeared in the Maryland Gazette on February 7 and the New-Hampshire Gazette on February 8.  Additional newspapers in Boston carried it on February 11, including the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette.  The Essex Gazette ran the notice on February 12, as did Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette and Rind’s Virginia Gazette on February 14.  It made a surprising late appearance in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on February 18 (though it may have been in that newspaper on February 4, an issue not available via the databases of digitized newspapers).  Unfortunately, several issues of newspapers published in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in the ensuing weeks have not survived, making it impossible to determine when or if readers in those colonies encountered the same advertisement.

Throughout the Middle Colonies, New England, and the Chesapeake, however, colonists had access to the notice within a matter of weeks.  It did not appear in every newspaper, but it did run in newspapers in the major newspapers published in the largest port cities as well as several minor newspapers in smaller towns.  Although formatting shifted from one newspaper to another, the copy remained the same.  In each case, the first appearance of the advertisement benefited from a privileged place on the page, often positioned immediately after news items and before other advertisements.  That likely increased the chances that readers uninterested in perusing the advertisements would at least see the notice about the additional packet boat that transported mail across the Atlantic.  Its placement allowed it to operate as both news and advertisement.  Newspapers, one vital component of colonial communications networks, kept readers informed about improvements to the postal system, another important component.

February 2

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

Providence Gazette (February 2, 1771).

“[illegible] and dispatched by a Packet the next Day for Falmouth.”

Digitization makes historical sources, like eighteenth-century newspapers, more readily accessible to scholars, students, and other readers.  Yet the digitization process sometimes introduces errors or obstacles into the research process.  For databases of digitized copies of newspapers, for instance, human error introduced in generating metadata or creating cataloging infrastructures sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to identify the appropriate dates for images of historical sources.  An image of a particular page of a newspaper, for example, might be mislabeled in the metadata and then cataloged with images from pages of another issue as if it were part of that issue.  Sometimes the news, advertising, and other content printed on that page provide context for unraveling the mystery, but not always.  While rare occurrences in the databases that support the Adverts 250 Project, such errors are not unknown.  The original documents, the newspaper pages themselves, are much less likely to be separated from the rest of the corresponding pages in their issues in the archive.
Other obstacles include errors made while photographing, scanning, or other means of creating images of original sources.  Consider the third page of the February 2, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette available via America’s Historical Newspapers.  While that database consistently provides the highest quality images of eighteenth-century newspapers among the various databases consulted in the production of the Adverts 250 Project, occasionally minor irregularities do appear.  In this case, a band of faded text appears in the center of the page, making illegible portions of the articles in the first two columns and most of an advertisement in third column.  Recovering the missing portion of the articles requires consulting the original source in the archive, provided that the error was indeed introduced via remediation.  A working knowledge of eighteenth-century advertising practices, however, yields another means for discerning the contents of the advertisement.  The colophon for the Providence Gazette indicates that advertisements “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings” and then an additional fee for each subsequent week.  Since most advertisements ran for a minimum of three weeks, the partially obscured advertisement, signed by Alexander Colden, likely appeared in other editions.

Providence Gazette (February 9, 1771).

Sure enough, the same advertisement ran on February 9 in the next issue of this weekly newspaper.  In that iteration, the entire advertisement is legible, allowing savvy readers to consult it to peruse the portions obscured in the previous issue.  Curiously, the February 9 edition features similar bands of lighter text on the first and third pages.  The band of illegible text on the third page, however, includes a few words rendered as legibly as the rest of the page.  This suggests that the problem may not have occurred in the remediation after all.  Instead, the illegible bands of text may have been the result of the printing press not making a firm impression, something that the printer managed to remedy before publishing the February 16 edition.  In that case, America’s Historical Newspapers provides a digital image that accurately replicates the original source in the archive.  Confirming this requires consulting the original newspapers.  They remain a vital source rather than rendered obsolete by digitization.

I am consulting with colleagues who work in research libraries where they have access to the Providence Gazette to find out if the originals include these illegible bands.  I will update this entry with any new information we uncover.

January 26

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

Providence Gazette (January 26, 1771).

“THE TRIAL … published by Permission of the Court.”

In January 1771, John Fleeming published an account of the trials of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.  His marketing campaign began in the January 14, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post with a brief notice that he would soon take the book to press.  A week later, he published a much more extensive advertisement in the same newspaper, that one listing the various contents of the book from “The Indictments against the Prisoners” through “the Verdict returned by the Jury.”  Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, joined Fleeming in selling copies in Boston.

The account of the trials was soon available in other towns as well.  On January 25, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, inserted a short advertisement informing the public that “A few of the TRIALS of the SOLDIERS in Boston, are just come to Hand, and may be had of the Printers hereof.”  The next day, Benjamin West published a longer advertisement in the Providence Gazette.  Like Fleeming, he listed the names of the “Soldiers in his Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot” tried “for the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Grey, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday Evening, the 5th of March, 1770.”  West may not, however, have intentionally replicated that portion of Fleeming’s advertisement.  Instead, he incorporated the lengthy title as it appeared on the title page of the book into his advertisement, a common practice when marketing all sorts of books in the eighteenth century.  West did compose unique copy, making appeals that had not previously appeared in other newspaper notices, for his advertisement.  “In this Book may be read,” he explained, “all the Evidence and Arguments on both Sides, which are contained in no less than 217 Pages.”  In addition to the length suggesting that the account was complete, West also promoted its accuracy, commenting on “The Whole being taken in Short-hand, and published by Permission of the Court.”  Fleeming made similar appeals, but he named the transcriber, John Hodgdon, and noted that his copy had been compared “with other Minutes taken at the Trial.”

Fleeming, West, and the Fowles adopted different approaches in their advertisements for an account of the trials for the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, but they all marketed memorabilia about a significant event with implications that reverberated throughout the colonies and across the Atlantic.  They and their potential customers did not know that the Boston Massacre and other events part of the imperial crisis they were experiencing would eventually culminate in the American Revolution.  Today, however, we look at the production and marketing of books and pamphlets about the Boston Massacre and prints depicting it and recognize that the commodification of the American Revolution began years before the first shots at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

January 19

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

Providence Gazette (January 19, 1771).

As Advertising is attended with Expence to the College, tis earnestly requested that it need not be repeated.”

When Rhode Island College (Now Brown University) moved from Warren to its permanent home in Providence in 1770, supporters launched a fundraising campaign to erect a building.  A local committee published advertisements that simultaneously asked for donations and kept the public apprised of progress on the edifice.  Hezekiah Smith toured South Carolina and Georgia, seeking “subscribers” who pledged to make donations and providing additional information in newspapers published in Charleston and Savannah.

Construction of the building began in 1770 and continued the following year.  A new advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette on January 19.  “THE Committee for building the College,” desire all Persons who are Subscribers to pay their Subscriptions immediately, as the Workmen are now daily calling for their Money.”  The committee had amassed sufficient pledges to commence construction, but now they needed those benefactors to follow through on their commitments in order to pay the bills.  In a nota bene, the committee offered an alternative to cash donations:  “Some Inch and Quarter Plank and Floor Boards are yet wanted, and will be received in Lieu of Money, if brought immediately.”  Those supplies would not settle accounts with the workers, but they would allow them to make progress on the building.

The first time it ran in the Providence Gazette, this advertisement appeared first among the paid notices, immediately below the prices current.  That increased the likelihood that readers who perused the news but did not intend to read the advertisements would spot it on the third page even if they ignored the final page filled exclusively with advertising.  John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, may have given the advertisement that privileged placement in support of the committee’s efforts, but any support apparently did not extend to providing occasional free advertising.  “As Advertising is attended with Expence to the College,” the committee declared, “’tis earnestly requested that it need not be repeated.”  In its fundraising efforts, Rhode Island College encouraged philanthropy through various means, including local support, distant subscribers who met a representative dispatched to solicit benefactors, and donations of materials.  The committee did not manage, however, to leverage free advertising for their fundraising notices as an alternative to other kinds of contributions, though it is not clear if they even made such a proposal to the printer.  Carter was at least amenable enough toward the project to give the newest advertisement a strategic placement on the page.

January 12

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

SlaveryProvidence Gazette (January 12, 1771).“A Likely strong Negro Man.”

On January 12, 1771, an advertisement for a “Likely strong Negro Man, about 28 Years of Age,” ran in the Providence Gazette.  It was just one of dozens of advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children that appeared in newspapers published throughout the colonies during the week of Sunday, January 6, through Saturday, January 12.  From New England to South Carolina, newspapers contributed to the perpetuation of slavery by publishing advertisements about buying and selling enslaved people, notices that described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return, and advertisements about suspected “runaways” who had been committed to jails in northern colonies and workhouses in southern colonies.

Newspaper printers, including John Carter of the Providence Gazette, generated revenues from publishing at least seventy-one such advertisements.  They appeared in newspapers in every region:  six advertisements in five newspapers in New England, eleven advertisements in four newspapers in the Middle Atlantic, twenty-five advertisements in three newspapers in the Chesapeake, and twenty-nine newspapers in the Lower South.  This tally almost certainly undercounts the total number of newspaper advertisements concerning enslaved people published that week.  Two of the four pages of the January 8 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal are missing.  Portions of the January 10 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette are so damaged as to be illegible.  No copies of the Georgia Gazette from 1771 survive, though other sources confirm that newspaper continued publication throughout the year.  This census of newspapers notices concerning enslaved men, women, and children provides only the minimum number of such notices that readers throughout the colonies encountered that week.

That being the case, these advertisements were a familiar sight, a part of everyday life in the colonies … and not just colonies in the Chesapeake and the Lower South.  In New England, the Boston Evening-Post, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, the Massachusetts Spy, the New-Hampshire Gazette, and the Providence Gazette all carried advertisements concerning enslaved people.  In the Middle Atlantic, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal did as well.  Today it may seem striking to some to glimpse an advertisement about the sale of a “Likely strong Negro Man” in the pages of the Providence Gazette in the early 1770s, that advertisement did not seem out of place to readers in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England and other colonies when it was published.

January 5

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

Providence Gazette (January 5, 1771).

“A variety of other articles too tedious to mention.”

Shopkeepers Ebenezer Thompson and James Arnold placed a lengthy advertisement for a “GOOD assortment of English and India Goods” in the January 5, 1771, edition of the Providence Gazette.  The partners deployed a familiar format, a prologue that gave general information about their enterprise followed by an extensive inventory of their merchandise. The prologue listed their names and location, identified which ship had recently delivered their wares, and promised “the very lowest Rates” or prices for their customers.

Some advertisers, like Nicholas Brown and Company, Joseph and William Russell, and Thurber and Cahoon limited their advertisements to the information in the prologue, but Thompson and Arnold reasoned that if they demonstrated the range of choices available to consumers that they would attract more customers.  As a result, their advertisement filled half a column, enumerating dozens of textiles as well as everything from “womens black worsted gloves and mitts” to “horn and ivory combs” to “temple and common spectacles” to “leather bellows.”  Thompson and Arnold focused primarily on garments and trimmings, but also indicated that they stocked housewares and hardware.

After cataloging so many items, the shopkeepers concluded with a note that they carried “a variety of other articles too tedious to mention.”  Like the lengthy list, that was also a marketing strategy frequently employed by advertisers who wished to suggest that they provided such a vast array of choices that it was not possible to name all of them.  This enhanced the invitation for consumers to visit their shops by providing both certainty about some of the merchandise and opportunities for further discovery.  Thompson and Arnold demonstrated that they carried an assortment of goods to satisfy customers, but also allowed for some surprises that could make the experience of shopping even more pleasurable for prospective customers who took the time to examine their wares.

Thompson and Arnold certainly paid more for their advertisement than their competitors did for their notices.  Five that consisted solely of the material from the prologue filled the same amount of space as Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement on its own.  Yet the more extensive advertisement may very well have been worth the investment.  Not only did it give consumers a better sense of the goods that Thompson and Arnold carried, its length made it more visible on the page and suggested the prosperity and competence of the shopkeepers.

December 29

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

Providence Gazette (December 29, 1770).

“A LIST of the fortunate Numbers in the First Class of CUMBERLAND BRIDGE Lottery.”

In order to raise funds for “the Purpose of repairing and rebuilding the Bridge over Pawtucket River, called Whipple’s Bridge,” a committee composed of residents of Cumberland received permission from the Rhode Island assembly to conduct a series of lotteries in 1770.  The committee began advertising in late November, advising the public that they would sponsor a series of four lotteries intended to yield one hundred dollars each.  They published the “SCHEME of a LOTTERY” in the Providence Gazette, stating that they planned to “draw the First Class in a very short Time” and pledging to publish the winning tickets in the Providence Gazette.

That notice appeared in the December 29 edition.  A heading informed readers that it was “A LIST of the fortunate Numbers in the First Class of CUMBERLAND BRIDGE Lottery.”  The remainder of the advertisement consisted entirely of five pairs of columns that gave the winning ticket numbers and the dollar value of the corresponding prizes.  According to the original notice that recruited participants, the winners had six months to claim their prizes.  Any prize money not claimed in that interval “will be deemed generously given to the Public, for the future repairing of said Bridge.”  The committee did not, however, remind winners of that stipulation when publishing the winning numbers in the newspaper.  Still, the new notice apprised both participants and the general public that the enterprise moved forward.

It also buttressed another notice in the same edition.  In that one, the “Managers of the Cumberland Bridge Lottery hereby give Notice, That the Third Class of said Lottery will be drawn on the 11th of January, at the House of the Widow Martha Whipple, in Cumberland aforesaid.”  The announcement of prizes from the first class likely helped to advertise the later lotteries by demonstrating that some participants already enjoyed the benefits of their “fortunate Numbers” being drawn.  Considered together, the two notices indicated that the committee made good progress on raising the necessary funds to repair the bridge.