May 27

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

May 27 - 5:24:1770 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (May 24, 1770).

The other Advertisements must be deferred to next Week.”

John Crosby, who sold citrus fruits “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons,” and George Spriggs, “Gardner to JOHN HANCOCK,” were fortunate.  Their advertisements were the last two that appeared in the May 24, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  At the bottom of the third column on the final page, Richard Draper, the printer, inserted a brief notice that “The other Advertisements must be deferred to next Week.”  Unlike Crosby and Spriggs, some advertisers did not see their notices in print in that issue.

Draper had too much content to include in the standard four-page edition that week.  He may have considered producing a two-page supplement, as eighteenth-century printers often did in such situations, but perhaps he did not have sufficient advertisements to fill the space.  Alternately, lack of time or other resources may have prevented him from distributing a supplement that week.  Compared to other issues, the May 24 edition contained relatively few advertisements.  They comprised just over two columns, less than an entire page in a publication that often delivered just as much advertising as news.

Like other newspaper printers, Draper had to strike a balance between news and advertising.  Subscribers expected to receive the news, not just advertising, but advertisers contributed significant revenue to the operation of colonial newspapers.  Advertisers expected to put their notices before the eyes of readers.  They wished to reach as many readers as possible, which meant that printers could not alienate subscribers by skimping on the news or else risk their newspapers becoming less attractive venues for placing advertisements because subscription numbers decreased.  This was especially true in the larger port cities where printers published competing newspapers.  When it came to attracting both subscribers and advertisers, Draper contended with the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy in 1770.  Delaying advertisements by a week on occasion was unlikely to convince his advertisers to post their notices in other newspapers, but it was not something that Draper could do on a regular basis and expect to maintain his clientele of advertisers and attract new ones.

December 31

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

Dec 31 - 12:28:1769 Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter
Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (December 28, 1769).

“Induce those Gentlemen who have long been Customers, to renew their Subscription.”

Richard Draper, printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, marked the end of 1769 with a notice to subscribers in the final edition of the year. He did not so much mark the imminent start of a new calendar year as much as he noted that “This Paper concludes the Year of many of the Subscribers to it.” He took the opportunity to encourage “those Gentlemen who have ling been Customers, to renew their Subscription” for another year.

Draper made this appeal in a crowded media market, the most crowded in the American colonies. Boston, a bustling urban port, was among the largest cities, but others were larger. Despite that fact, printers in Boston published more newspapers in the late 1760s than their counterparts in Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. As 1769 drew to a close, Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter competed with four other newspapers published in Boston: the Boston Chronicle (one of the few newspapers anywhere in the colonies published twice a week, but also noted for its Loyalist sympathies and tone), the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette (perhaps the most vocal in support of the Patriot cause, but certainly not the only newspaper that took that stance), and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.

Given the competition, Draper asked subscribers to consider what distinguished his newspapers from others. “The Publisher hopes by the Carefulness in his Publications of giving Intelligence in the most authentic Manner,” he stated, “that the Paper will retain the Credit it always had of being as judicious … as any other Paper.” Draper suggested that he took his role as editor seriously, carefully selecting the contents of each issue to deliver accurate information rather than propaganda to his readers. An example of his editorial style appeared on the page following his notice to subscribers. He republished three letters from the Essex Gazette, providing a short explanation by way of introduction: “Having in our last published from the Essex Gazette, the Advertisement of the Committee of Merchants at Marblehead, wherein several Gentlemen’s Names were mentioned, Justice requires us to publish the Vindication of themselves, taken from the last Essex Gazette.” Having inserted a portion of the story in one edition, Draper continued coverage as more information became available. More partisan printers might not have been so generous or conscientious. In his monumental History of Printing in America (1810), Isaiah Thomas praised Draper, declaring that he “was esteemed the best compiler of news of his day.”[1] That was the characteristic that Draper marketed to subscribers when he called on them to renew their subscriptions. They could depend on receiving a carefully curated newspaper that kept them well informed of the events of the day.

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[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America with a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers, ed. Marcus A. McCorison (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 144.

November 28

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

Nov 28 - 11:28:1768 Boston Chronicle
Boston Chronicle (November 28, 1768).

“Ames’s Almanack for 1769, SOLD by William M‘Alpine in MARLBOROUGH STREET, Boston.”

As November came to an end and a new year drew even closer, printers and booksellers in Boston and throughout the colonies placed advertisements for almanacs for the year 1769. Almanacs were big business for eighteenth-century printers. From the most humble to the most elite households, customers of assorted backgrounds purchased these slender and inexpensive volumes, creating a broad market. As a result, printers and booksellers considered almanacs an important revenue stream, one that justified extensive advertising.

Compared to many other advertisements for almanacs, William McAlpine’s notice in the November 28, 1768, edition of the Boston Chronicle was short and simple. In its entirety, it announced, “Ames’s Almanack for 1769, SOLD by William M‘Alpine in MARLBOROUGH STREET, Boston.” Other printers and booksellers sold other titles by other authors, but some also sold “Ames’s Almanack.” Indeed, more than one version of that popular almanac circulated in the fall of 1768.

The same day that McAlpine advertised in the Boston Chronicle, the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette ran identical notices that warned readers that “a counterfeit Ames’s Almanack has been printed not agreeable to the original copy.” That notice implied that the counterfeit contained “above twenty Errors in the Sittings of the Courts,” making that important reference information included among the contents of many almanacs useless to anyone who purchased the counterfeit. The notice also advised prospective buyers how to recognize the counterfeit: “the Name of William MAlpine” appeared in the imprint at the bottom of the title page. Anyone wishing to acquire “the true genuine correct Ames’s ALMANACKS” needed to “take Notice” of the imprint and select only those “that at the Bottom of the Outside Title, is ‘BOSTON, Printed and sold by the Printers,’ &c. and no particular Name thereto.”

Rather than a public service, this notice was actually an act of sabotage. A cabal of printers issued a pirated copy of McAlpine’s legitimate edition of Nathaniel Ames’s Astronomical Diary, or, Almakack for the Year of our Lord Christ 1769 and, adding insult to injury, accused McAlpine of introducing multiple errors into a counterfeit that he printed and distributed. Charles Nichols estimates that printers annually sold 50,000 copies of Ames’s almanac by the time of the Revolution, making it quite tempting for printers to seek their own share of that market. Not coincidentally, the notice warning against McAlpine’s supposed counterfeit ran in newspapers published by printers responsible for the pirated edition. T. & J. Fleet printed the Boston Evening-Post and Edes and Gill printed the Boston-Gazette. Richard Draper, printer of the Boston Weekly News-Letter, operated the third printing office involved in the conspiracy. His newspaper ran the same notice that week, but it also included an advertisement for “AMES’s Almanack for 1769” that bore the imprint “Sold by the Printers and Booksellers in Town, and Traders in the Country.”

Quite simple in appearance, McAlpine’s advertisement for Ames’s almanac provides a window for a much more complicated story of competition, piracy, and sabotage committed by printers in eighteenth-century Boston. The notice about a counterfeit inserted in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette had the appearance of a news item. In each instance it appeared at the end of news content and the start of advertising, blurring the distinction. The marketing strategy deployed by the printers of the pirated edition went far beyond fair dealing.

September 29

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

Sep 29 - 9:29:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter Postscript
Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 29, 1768).

The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury.”

Less than three weeks after Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Journal, first promoted a pamphlet about the “LIFE, and abominable THEFTS, of the notorious Isaac Frasier,” who had just been executed in Fairfield, printers in Boston ran an advertisement for the same pamphlet in the Postscript to the Boston Weekly News-Letter. It announced that the pamphlet was “JUST RE-PRINTED and Sold at Kneeland & Adams’s Printing Office in Milk-Street; and R. Draper’s Office in Newbury Street.” The Boston printers most likely sold a second edition produced by the Greens rather than one they printed themselves.

Just as the Greens had attempted to draw on popular interest in an event that had just occurred in their colony, the Boston printers adapted the advertisement to focus on a local connection. The contents of the pamphlet were certainly provocative already: an account given by the Frasier “(under Sentence of Death for Burglary) penned from his own Mouth, signed by him, a few Days before his Execution: With his dying SPEECH.” Yet some of the details were especially relevant to readers of the Boston Weekly News-Letter. The advertisement in that newspaper specified that “The Account contains some Particulars of his robbing Mr Davis’s Shop at Roxbury, and other Places in Roxbury, Boston, &c.” Furthermore, the contents of the pamphlet answered lingering questions about crimes that had occurred in Massachusetts. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Early American Criminals, the pamphlet recorded more than fifty thefts and burglaries committed by Frasier as he “toured all over New England and into New York, covering hundreds of miles at a time.” As far as his thefts in Roxbury, Boston, and other local towns were concerned, the advertisement stated, “The Articles that he stole are mentioned very particularly at his Desire, that the Owners may know the Articles taken by him, in order to exculpate others.” The pamphlet presented information about those thefts that would not otherwise appear in news coverage in the public prints. It offered an exclusive look at Frasier’s crime spree.

The printer-booksellers who sold the “brief Account” in Boston encouraged readers to simultaneously marvel at Frasier’s audacity and condemn his crimes. They transformed his narrative of his thefts and his “dying SPEECH” into a form of entertainment. In their promotion, they heralded the genre of true crime and its power to provoke interest and sell merchandise.

May 1

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

May 1 - 4:28:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 28, 1768).

THOSE Advertisements which are omitted will have a very good Place in our next.”

Richard Draper inserted a short notice at the bottom of the middle column on the third page of the April 28, 1768, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette. In it, the printer informed the public that “THOSE Advertisements which are omitted will have a very good Place in our next.” Like the abbreviated colophon (“Printed by R. DRAPER”) that appeared at the same place on the final page, it looked like the printer barely had enough space to squeeze this announcement into an issue that quite literally overflowed with news, editorials, and, especially, advertising. Unlike other printers in Boston and elsewhere in the colonies, Draper did not issue a supplement. Perhaps he did not have sufficient time or resources to do so. Perhaps he did not have sufficient content to fill an additional two pages, even though he had not been able to run all of the advertisements he had received.

Proportionally, Draper did publish a significant quantity of advertisements compared to other content in the April 28 edition. More than thirty advertisements of various lengths accounted for nearly two-thirds of the space, filling seven of the twelve columns and extending well into an eighth. Although the Massachusetts Gazette was alternately known as the Boston News-Letter, it also functioned as a delivery mechanism for advertising of all sorts in addition to news. In this particular issue, for instance, merchants and shopkeepers promoted vast assortments of consumer goods and services. Vendue masters highlighted which goods would be presented for bids at upcoming auctions. Local officials inserted legal notices. Executors called on debtors and creditors to settle accounts. Two schoolmistresses declared their intentions to open a boarding school for young ladies. Timothy Force warned others not to allow his wife to contract any debts in his name because she “has eloped and keeps away, and refuses to live with me.” All the way from Antigua, Edward Gamble announced an estate sale that included a plantation and 151 enslaved men, women, and children.

Although more than half of the paid notices in that issue featured consumer goods and services, “subscribers” placed advertisements with various purposes and goals in mind. Each expected some sort of results or return on their investment. In his own notice concerning “Advertisements which are omitted,” Draper primarily addressed advertisers rather than readers, though his announcement may have also incited anticipation about what else might appear in the pages of the next issue among some readers. The printer offered a consolation to advertisers, promising “a very good Place in our next.” That promise suggested that the printer put more consideration into the order of advertisements than their haphazard arrangement on the page otherwise indicated. That he could not include all of them in the issue also testified to the popularity of his publication, implying that prospective advertisers should follow the lead established by their peers and place their notices in the Massachusetts Gazette. After all, demand for space in that newspaper was so high, presumably because advertisers believed the publication placed their advertisements before as many eyes as possible, that Draper could not include all of them. Though he did not state it so bluntly, the printer transformed his inability to disseminate all the advertisements submitted for the April 28 edition into a rationale for others to advertise in his newspaper when choosing among the several published in Boston at the time.

October 8

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

Oct 8 - 10:8:1767 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (October 8, 1767).

The Advertisements taking up so much Room, the several Articles intended for this Page are thrown into a SUPPLEMENT.”

This notice appeared at the bottom of the first column on the second page of the October 8, 1767, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette. Richard Draper followed a standard procedure among eighteenth-century printers: when faced with too much content to fit into the allotted space he opted to distribute a two-page supplement along with the regular issue. This happened fairly frequently, especially in major port cities. Higher concentrations of residents meant greater numbers of advertisements to squeeze into each week’s four-page issue, sometimes yielding supplements devoted almost exclusively to advertising. The October 8 supplement, however, consisted primarily of news items as a result of “The Advertisements taking up so much Room” in the regular issue.

Draper and the Massachusetts Gazette did not have a higher number of advertisers than usual. Instead, advertisements placed by two local shopkeepers occupied significant amounts of space. Shopkeeper Jolley Allen continued publication of his lengthy list-style advertisement that filled two entire columns on the final page. Not to be outdone, bookseller John Mein commenced a new full-page advertisement for his “grand Assortment of the most MODERN BOOKS In every Branch of Polite Literature Arts and Sciences,” the one that he intended to launch in the Boston-Gazette three days earlier. That advertisement combined a previous advertisement for “A NEW EDITION of Dilworth’s Spelling Book” (set apart almost as a distinct advertisement in the lower right corner) and descriptions of two other books followed by a list of other books and stationery supplies in stock. The compositor created four narrow columns instead of the usual three slightly wider ones, resulting in a new look for that particular page compared to the rest of the newspaper.

Overall, just two advertisements accounted for nearly half of the October 8 issue of the Massachusetts Gazette, making the supplement practically a necessity. This happened as a result of both the printer and the advertisers experimenting with the format for newspaper notices. Although colonial newspapers published full-page advertisements sporadically in the 1760s, having an issue dominated by only two advertisements would have been an extraordinary event for readers, one that would have garnered even more notice among potential customers for John Mein and Jolley Allen.

May 29

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

May 29 - 5:29:1766 Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary
Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary (May 29, 1766).

Print played a significant role in the coming of the American Revolution. Some scholars argue for the primacy of newspapers in facilitating debate, giving a voice to protest, and shaping public opinion. Other printed items, however, also played a role, including pamphlets, sermons, almanacs, and engraved images (the eighteenth-century counterpart to modern political cartoons). Many of the advertisements selected for inclusion here directly addressed the discontent over the Stamp Act, some of them by marketing tracts that defended the colonies against the abuses of Parliament.

Printers and booksellers simultaneously expressed political views and sought to earn a living by advertising and selling items related to the crisis while the Stamp Act was still in effect. That did not change when the Stamp Act was repealed, though the rhetoric may have shifted slightly. Rather than promote a work condemning an overzealous and overreaching Parliament, today’s advertisement announced the publication of a “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.” That hated piece of legislation was gone, but printers continued to express their political beliefs – and they seized new opportunities to turn a profit as well.

In this case, politics might have slightly edged out profit. Three printing firms that otherwise would have been competitors joined together to advertise and sell the “Thanksgiving-Discourse”: Richard Draper and Samuel Draper (printers of the Massachusetts Gazette), Benjamin Edes and John Gill (printers of the Boston-Gazette) and Thomas Fleet and John Fleet (printers of the Boston Evening-Post).

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Bonus: Newspapers carried more than editorials and advertisements that commented on politics. This “ODE On the Repeal of the Stamp-Act” appeared in the Massachusetts Gazette in the same week as the advertisement for the “Thanksgiving-Discourse, on the REPEAL of the Stamp-Act.”

May 29 - 5:29:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (May 29, 1766).