What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING A WEEKLY NEWSPAPER, AT NORFOLK.”
It was a busy year for proposing and establishing new newspapers in the colonies. In 1773, printers in several colonies announced their intentions to publish new newspapers, some in towns that did not yet have their own newspapers and others in places already served by one or more newspapers. The first new newspaper of the year appeared in New York following an extensive campaign to attract subscribers in the city and far beyond. James Rivington distributed the first issue of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer; or the Connecticut, New-Jersey, Hudson’s-River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser on April 22, 1773. Alexander Robertson, James Robertson, and John Trumbull sought subscribers during the summer and began publishing the Norwich Packet and the Connecticut, Massachusetts, New-Hampshire, and Rhode-Island Weekly Advertiser in the fall. The first newspaper published in Norwich, it became the fourth published in Connecticut at the time. In Baltimore, William Goddard launched the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser on August 20 after disseminating subscription proposals for many months. It was the first newspaper in a city not yet prepared for two weekly publications. Robert Hodge and Frederick Shober did not manage to attract enough subscribers to make their proposed newspaper a viable venture.
William Duncan hoped for a different outcome when he placed “PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING A WEEKLY NEWSPAPER, AT NORFOLK,” in the August 12 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. Duncan hoped to gather enough subscribers to support the Norfolk Gazette and Virginia Advertiser. If successful, it would be the first newspaper published in that town and the first one published in Virginia beyond Williamsburg. Duncan indicated the cost for both subscriptions and advertisements “will be the same as those published in WILLIAMSBURG” in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette and Rind’s Virginia Gazette. According to the colophons in both newspapers, subscriptions cost twelve shillings and six pence per year and advertisements “of a moderate Length” ran for three shillings for the first week and then two shillings for each additional insertion. Duncan pledged to subscribers that he would devote “Attention to their Interest, by procuring the earliest Intelligences” and selecting only “what may be really useful as well as entertaining” while avoiding filler that did not matter to readers.
To aid in this endeavor, “SUBSCRIPTIONS will be taken in by the different GENTLEMEN instructed withPROPOSALS,” a common practice for gauging interest in books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications in early America. Printed proposals usually included both an overview of the purpose of the publication, the plan for taking it to press, and the conditions for subscribing, including cost and descriptions of the paper and type. In his newspaper advertisement, Duncan acknowledged that a “Specimen or Paper, Size, and Arrangement, may be expected by some” who wished to examine a sample before subscribing. However, he had not yet arrived in Virginia and in his absence “does not purpose that any Thing of that Nature should be shown until he carries the Work into Execution.” Such circumstances may have made some prospective subscribers wary. William Duncan and Company did eventually distribute the first edition of the Virginia Gazette or Norfolk Intelligencer on June 9, 1774, ten months after the subscription proposals first appeared in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg. Duncan began working on the project in the summer of 1773, but it took the better part of a year to commence publication.