What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A General Assortment of GROCERIES.”
Isaiah Thomas launched the Massachusetts Spy on July 17, 1770, with an issue that included the “PROPOSALS for printing by Subscription, A New PAPER of INTELLIGENCE” as well as several news items. The “PROPOSALS” served as an advertisement for the newspaper, the only advertisement that appeared in “NUMB. I,” that first issue. Thomas stated that he would publish the next issue two weeks later (but three times a week after that) and invited subscribers and advertisers to contact him. Three weeks elapsed before the printer distributed the next edition, but after that he kept to the schedule he outlined in the “PROPOSALS.”
The first several issues, however, did not include advertisements. Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy competed with four other newspapers published in Boston, all of them established years earlier and familiar to the readers in the city and its hinterlands. Prospective advertisers quite likely did not wish to invest in placing notices in the Massachusetts Spy until they saw what kind of reception it received among the public and got a better sense of its circulation. It was not until “NUMB. 8,” the eighth issue, that advertisements other than the “PROPOSALS” ran in the Massachusetts Spy. More than a month after Thomas solicited advertisements in the first issue, four of them ran on August 21, 1770. Alexander Chamberlain, Jr., advertised groceries and housewares, while two citrus sellers at “the sign of the Dish of Lemons, in Marlborough-street” and “the Sign of the Basket of Lemons … in Middle-Street” competed for customers. An anonymous “WET NURSE” offered her services, instructing prospective clients to “Enquire at the New Printing-Office, in Union-Street.” Like other printers, Thomas disseminated additional information to readers who followed up on advertisements that ran in his newspaper.
In the colophon on the final page, Thomas reminded readers that he accepted “Subscriptions, Articles of Intelligence, and Advertisements, &c. for this Paper.” Having finally published these advertisements, he likely hoped that they would encourage more colonists to insert their own notices in his newspaper. After all, advertising represented an important revenue stream for any printer. Paid notices often made the difference between newspapers successfully turning a profit or not having sufficient resources to continue publication.