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.

July 1

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

Jul 1 - 7:1:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (July 1, 1767).

“The printer of this paper entreats his customers to pay their subscription monies.”

In the period before the American Revolution, printers regularly inserted notices asking newspaper subscribers to “pay their subscription monies,” as James Johnston did in the July 1, 1767, issue of the Georgia Gazette. His notice was particularly short; others went into greater detail in their attempts to get customers to settle their account, some suggesting that many subscribers were in arrears not for weeks or months or rather for years. If colonial readers did not make timely payments for their newspapers, that helps to explain why advertising was considered such an important means of generating revenues for newspapers.

This raises a question about printers and their business practices. Did advertisers pay for their notices before they were inserted in the newspaper? Or, did printers extend credit to advertisers as well as subscribers?

Printers certainly encouraged newspaper advertising. The colophon of the Georgia Gazette indicated that it was “Printed by JAMES JOHNSTON, at the Printing-Office in Broughton-Street, where Advertisements, Letters of Intelligence, and Subscriptions for this Paper, are taken in.” This was fairly standard for publications that included colophons that ran across all the columns at the bottom of the final page. That same week, several printers included similar language in their colophon, including Sarah Goddard and Company (Providence Gazette), William Goddard (Pennsylvania Chronicle), John Holt (New-York Journal), James Parker (New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Post-Boy), Alexander Purdie and John Dixon (Virginia Gazette), and Robert Wells (South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal). Two of them, Holt and Purdie and Dixon, even indicated the costs of advertising, but neither indicated that they needed to be paid in advance.

Although printers frequently advertised that subscribers needed to settle accounts, they did not make similar requests of advertisers. There are at least two possibilities to explain this. Possibly advertisements had to be paid in advance. Alternately, printers may have considered advertising valuable content that helped to attract readers who would (eventually, hopefully) pay for their subscriptions. They may have been more lenient with advertisers who fell behind with their accounts as a result. This is a question that I would like to pursue in greater detail the next time I have a chance to consult printers’ records.