What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“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 M‘Alpine” 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.