January 28

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

Massachusetts Spy (January 28, 1771).

He shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences.”

Isaiah Thomas ranked among the most prominent and influential printers in eighteenth-century America.  Often described as a patriot printer, he consistently supported the American cause during the imperial crisis and war for independence.  The views expressed in his newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, became such a thorn in the side of British officials in Boston that Thomas fled to Worcester for his own safety in the spring of 1775, continuing publication of the Massachusetts Spy there once he managed to acquire paper.  Famously, the inaugural issue published in that town featured Thomas’s firsthand account of the events at Concord and Lexington on April 19.   Among his many accomplishments, he wrote the monumental History of Printing in America (1810) and founded the American Antiquarian Society (1812).

Yet the Massachusetts Spy was not an immediate success when Thomas commenced publication in partnership with Zechariah Fowle in the summer of 1770.  They originally distributed three issues per week, but Thomas scaled back to two issues when the partnership dissolved after three months.  Thomas and Fowle had a particular readership in mind.  “The Massachusetts Spy,” Thomas explained, “was calculated to obtain subscriptions form mechanics, and other classes of people who had not much time to spare from business.”  The newspaper appeared on smaller sheets than others published in Boston in order that “the contents of the Spy might with convenience be read at a leisure moment.”[1]  The newspaper was slow to attract advertisers, an important source of revenue for any eighteenth-century newspaper.  Near the end of January, Thomas inserted a notice that the following issue “compleats six months since the first publication.”  Following that issue, “he shall stop publishing till the Enlargement commences, which, from the Encouragement he has already been favoured with, he doubts not will be on the first Tuesday in March next, if not before.”  For some time, Thomas had been promising an “Enlargement” to larger sheets so the Massachusetts Spywould more closely resemble other newspapers published in Boston.  Thomas suspended the newspaper for five weeks, resuming publication of the “Enlargement” on March 7.

Thomas commented on subscription numbers in both his notice in the January 28 edition and the History of Printing in America.  In the notice, he pledged that he would “begin the Enlargement as soon as ever eight hundred subscribers appears.”  The Massachusetts Spy had five hundred subscribers at the time, making Thomas’s goal look ambitious.  Whether or not he achieved the prescribed number of subscribers, Thomas did not mention when he relaunched the Massachusetts Spy (and reset the issue numbering to mark a new venture).  Decades later, he stated, “The majority of the customers for the former Spy preferred the way in which it had been published, and withdrew their subscriptions.”  The new Massachusetts Spy got off to a rocky start.  The number of subscribers dropped to two hundred, “but after the first week they increased daily, and in the course of two years the subscription list was larger than that of any other newspaper printed in New England.”[2]

Thomas did not mention, however, that the number of advertisers increased as well.  Within six months, the number of advertisements in the Massachusetts Spy rivaled the paid notices inserted in other newspapers published in Boston.  The original publication limped along with few advertisements to support its operations, but the “Enlargement” attracted new readers and with them came new advertisers and greater revenues.

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[1] Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 265.

[2] Thomas, History of Printing, 266.