August 5

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

Newport Mercury (August 5, 1771).

“Where may be gad all kinds of BLANKS commonly used in this Colony.”

Colonial printers often used the colophons on the final pages of their newspapers for more than merely providing the name of the printer and the place of publication.  Many printers treated colophons as spaces for promoting various aspects of their businesses, transforming them into ancillary advertisements.

In a relatively brief example, Solomon Southwick, printer of the Newport Mercury, informed readers that he supplied “all Kinds of BLANKS” (or printed forms for commercial and legal transactions) “commonly used in this Colony.”  Anne Catherine Green included a much more extensive colophon in Maryland Gazette.  Like many other printers, she hawked subscriptions and advertisements, but she also promoted other goods and services available at her printing office in Annapolis.  “At same Place may be had, ready Printed,” she declared, “most kinds of BLANKS, viz. COMMON and BAIL BONDS; TESTAMENTARY LETTERS of several Sorts, with their proper BONDS annexed; BILLS of EXCHANGE; [and] SHIPPING BILLS.”  In addition to blanks, “All Manner of PRINTING-WORK performed in the neatest and most expeditious Manner.”

Isaiah Thomas also used the colophon of his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, to solicit job printing in addition to subscriptions and advertisements.  “PRINTING, in its various Branches,” he proclaimed, “performed in a neat Manner, with the greatest Care and Dispatch, on the most reasonable Terms.”  In particular, Thomas produced “Small Hand-Bills at an Hour’s Notice.”  According to the colophon for the New-York Journal, John Holt did “all Sorts of Printing Work … in the neatest Manner, with Care and Expedition.”  Alexander Purdie and John Dixon deployed similar language in the colophon for the Virginia Gazette: “All sorts of PRINTING WORK done at this Office in the neatest Manner, with Care and Expedition.”

Not every newspaper printer transfigured the colophon into an advertisement.  The colophon for the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, for instance, simply stated, “BOSTON: Printed by R. Draper.”  A substantial number of printers, however, did seize the opportunity to do more than merely list their name and location at the bottom of the final page.  Their colophons became advertisements that perpetually appeared in their newspapers, promoting goods and services in a different format than other commercial notices.

March 6

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

Newport Mercury (March 6, 1771).

“Advertisements, not exceeding 10 or 12 Lines … will be inserted 3 Weeks for 3s9.”

Colonial printers regularly called on their customers to settle accounts.  Solomon Southwick, printer of the Newport Mercury, did so in the March 6, 1771, edition, enclosing his notice in a decorative border to draw attention.  He advised that “ALL Persons indebted to the Printer hereof, either for this Paper, Advertisements, or otherwise, are earnestly requested to make immediate Payment.”  Unlike some of his counterparts who published newspapers in other towns, he did not threaten legal action against those who ignored his notice.

Southwick did take the opportunity to invite others to become subscribers or place advertisements.  Some printers listed their subscription rates, advertising fees, or both in the colophon on the final page, but otherwise most rarely mentioned how much they charged.  Southwick’s notice listed the prices for both subscriptions and advertisements.  He specified that “Any Person may be supplied with this Paper at 6s9 Lawful Money per Year.”  That six shillings and nine pence did not include postage.  Southwick expected subscribers to pay “One Half on subscribing, and the other at the End of the Year.”  Extending credit for a portion of the subscription was standard practice among printers.

Southwick charged advertisers by the amount of space their notices occupied, not the number of words.  “Advertisement, not exceeding 10 or 12 Lines,” he declared, “will be inserted 3 Weeks for 3s9, and be continued, if required, at 1s per week.”  Once again adhering to standard practices in the printing trade, Southwick charged proportionally more for longer advertisements, contingent on their length.  If inserting an advertisement for an additional week cost one shilling, then the initial cost of running an advertisement for three weeks amounted to three shillings for the space in the newspaper and nine pence for setting type, bookkeeping, and other labor undertaken in the printing office.

Running an advertisement for only three weeks cost more than half as much as an annual subscription, demonstrating the significance of advertising revenue for early American printers.  Perhaps because that revenue helped to make publishing the Newport Mercury a viable enterprise, Southwick stated that advertisements should be “accompanied with the Pay” when delivered to his printing office.  He apparently extended credit for advertisements prior to March 1771, but then discouraged that practice in his notice that simultaneously requested that current customers submit payment and outlined the subscription and advertising fees for new customers.

August 14

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

Aug 14 - 8:14:1769 Newport Mercury
Newport Mercury (August 14, 1769).

““ADvertisements of a common Length will be inserted 3 Weeks in this Paper at Three Shillings and Nine Pence Lawful Money.”

How much did advertising in colonial newspapers cost? Printers rarely published advertising rates in their newspapers. A few did include this information in the colophon that appeared at the bottom of the final page of each issue, but most did not make their rates so readily available. On occasion, some printers published their plan of publication, including advertising rates, in the first edition as part of launching a newspaper, but did not incorporate that information into subsequent issues. That made Solomon Southwick’s advertisement in the August 14, 1769, edition of the Newport Mercury all the more notable. It did not receive a place of prominence on the first page or in the colophon. Instead, it appeared among other advertisements on the final page, sandwiched between Elizabeth Mumford’s advertisement that John Remmington continued making shoes at her shop following the death of her husband and John Fryer’s notice about a house for rent. The first column of the first page consisted almost entirely of advertising; Southwick could have increased the visibility for his own advertisement about advertising rates (as well as a call for advertisers who had not yet made payment to settle accounts) by inserting it as the first item readers would encounter.

Despite his decision not to exercise his privilege as printer of the Newport Mercury, Southwick did provide important information for prospective advertisers (and for historians of print culture in early America). He informed readers that “ADvertisements of a common Length will be inserted 3 Weeks in this Paper at Three Shillings and Nine Pence Lawful Money, and Nine Pence for every Week after.” His pricing scheme corresponded to those published by other printers. He charged a flat rate for setting the type and inserting an advertisement for three weeks. Some printers ran advertisements for four weeks, but most chose three weeks as the standard for an initial run. At three shillings and nine pence, this cost advertisers nine pence for each insertion and eighteen pence for setting type. This system allowed Southwick to generate revenues based on both labor involved in preparing an advertisement for publication and the space it occupied in the newspaper. His own advertisement, which did not appear the following week, would have cost the printing office twenty-seven pence – eighteen pence for setting the type and nine pence for the space in the August 14 edition – but Southwick likely considered it a good investment if it brought in new advertisers or convinced delinquent customers to make payments on their outstanding accounts.

Although eighteenth-century printers frequently advertised books, stationery, printed blanks, and other goods they sold, they rarely advertised advertising as a service they provided. Many may not have considered it necessary since the pages of their newspapers practically overflowed with advertisements. Those that did reveal advertising rates in the public prints demonstrated a high level of consistency in their business practices, charging an initial fee for setting type and running an advertisement for a specified number of weeks and then another fee for each additional week. According to his own advertisement, Southwick adopted just such a plan.