September 8

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 5, 1771).
“PURDIE and DIXON have imported a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper.”

Like many other colonial printers, Alexander Purdie and John Dixon took advantage of their access to the press to insert advertisements for goods and services they provided in the newspaper they published.  Such was the case in the September 5, 1771, edition of the Virginia Gazette.  Interspersed among the paid notices, the printers included their own advertisement for a vast array of imported goods.

Purdie and Dixon deployed a standard list format, creating a dense block of text.  Within their advertisement, however, they did organize their merchandise according to three main categories:  stationery wares, music, and patent medicines.  Many printers created additional revenue streams by selling books, stationery, and writing equipment.  Purdie and Dixon stocked “a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper, fine large Dutch and Hudson Bay Quills, fine Japan Ink, shining Sand, red and black Dutch Sealing Wax,” and a variety of other items to equip any desk for business or correspondence.  They also carried several pieces of music, including “Midas, the Padlock, and Love in a Village, for the Harpsicord, Voice, German Flute, Violin, or Guitar” and “eight Italian Sonatas for two Violins or Flutes, with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord, by several eminent Composers.”  The printers had on hand both popular and genteel selections to suit the tastes of their customers.  Furthermore, most printers and booksellers who included music among their titles did not indicate such an extensive selection.  Purdie and Dixon concluded by enumerating a dozen patent medicines, including many of the most common ones marketed from New England to Georgia.  “Bateman’s Pectoral Drops; Stoughton’s Squire’s, and Daffy’s Elixirs; [and] Turlington’s Balsam” required no further explanation because they were so familiar to consumers.  That may have been one of the reasons that printers frequently supplemented their stock of books and stationery with patent medicines, even if they did not sell other sorts of consumer goods.

Purdie and Dixon’s printing office “at the POST OFFICE” in Williamsburg was a hub for collecting and disseminating information, but it was also a place to go shopping.  They made available a variety of equipment for writing, all kinds of sheet music for entertainment, and an assortment of patent medicines for customers to treat illnesses and chronic conditions.  In addition to the fees they generated for subscriptions, advertising, and job printing, Purdie and Dixon also generated revenues from selling items from select categories of imported goods.

June 22

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

Providence Gazette (June 22, 1771).

“ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful Money.”

Today marks two thousand days of production for the Adverts 250 Project.  Every day for two thousand consecutive days, I have examined an advertisement originally published in an eighteenth-century newspaper.  Students enrolled in my Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Public History, and Research Methods classes at Assumption University have also contributed to the Adverts 250 Project as guest curators.

This milestone seems like a good opportunity to address two of the questions I most commonly encounter.  How much did a subscription to an eighteenth-century newspaper cost?  How much did an advertisement cost?  Most printers did not regularly publish subscription rates or advertising rates in their newspapers, but some did include that information in the colophon at the bottom of the final page.  Of the twenty-two newspapers published during the week of Sunday, June 16 through Saturday, June 22, 1771, that have been digitized and made available for scholars and other readers, seven listed subscription rates and six indicated advertising rates.  Four of those, the Essex Gazette, the Maryland Gazette, Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, and Rind’s Virginia Gazette, included both subscription rates and advertising rates in the colophon. That nearly as many identified advertising rates as the cost of subscriptions testifies to the importance of advertising for generating revenue.

Here is an overview of subscription rates and advertising rates inserted in the colophons of colonial newspapers during the last week of spring in 1771.

SUBSCRIPTION RATES:

  • Essex Gazette (June 18): “THIS GAZETTE may be had for Six Shillings and Eight Pence per Annum, (exclusive of Postage) 3s. 4d. (or 3s. 6d. if sent by Post) to be paid at Entrance.”
  • Maryland Gazette (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this GAZETTE, at 12s. 6d. a Year.”
  • Massachusetts Spy (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this paper at Six Shillings and Eight Pence, Lawful Money, per Annum.”
  • Pennsylvania Chronicle (June 17): “Subscriptions, (at TEN SHILLINGS per Annum) Advertisements, Articles and Letters of Intelligence are gratefully received for this Paper.”
  • Pennsylvania Journal (June 20): “Persons may be supplied with this Paper at Ten Shillings a Year.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 20): “ALL Persons may be supplied with this PAPER at 12s. 6d. a Year.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Rind] (June 20): “All Persons may be supplied with this GAZETTE at 12s6 per Year.”

ADVERTISING RATES:

  • Essex Gazette (June 18): “ADVERTISEMENTS not exceeding eight or ten Lines are inserted for Three Shillings.”
  • Maryland Gazette (June 20): “ADVERTISEMENTS, of a moderate Length, are inserted for the First Time, for 5s. and 1s. for each Week’s Continuance.  Long Ones in Proportion to their Number of Lines.”
  • New-York Journal (June 20): “Advertisements of no more Length than Breadth are inserted for Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after, and larger Advertisements in the same Proportion.”
  • Providence Gazette (June 22): “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful Money.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (June 20): “ALL Persons may … have ADVERTISEMENTS (of a moderate Length) inserted in it for 3s. the first Week, and 2s. each Week after.”
  • Virginia Gazette [Rind] (June 20): “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length are inserted for 3s. the First Week, and 2s. each Time after; and long ones in Proportion.”

Those newspapers that specified both subscription rates and advertising rates demonstrate the potential for generating significant revenue by publishing advertisements.  The competing newspapers in Williamsburg, Virginia, each charged twelve shillings and six pence per year for a subscription and collected three shillings for the first insertion of an advertisement and two shillings for every subsequent insertion.  William Rind declared that he set rates “in Proportion” for longer advertisements.  An advertisement that ran for six weeks cost more than an annual subscription.  Anne Catherine Green set the same price, twelve shillings and six pence, for a subscription to the Maryland Gazette, but charged five shillings the first time an advertisement ran.  Samuel Hall charged six shillings and eight pence for a subscription to the Essex Gazette and three shillings for each appearance of an advertisement of “eight or ten Lines.”  Some significantly exceeded that length, costing as much as a subscription for a single insertion.  Other printers presumable set similar rates, a pricing structure that meant that advertising played a substantial role in funding the dissemination of the news even in the colonial era.

September 14

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

Sep 14 - 9:14:1769 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 14, 1769).
“RUN away … a Mulatto slave.”

The digitization of historical sources has made them much more widely accessible to scholars and the general public. Anyone with an internet connection, for instance, can access this advertisement from the September 14, 1769, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette. Colonial Williamsburg has made the entire issue, along with hundreds of other newspapers published in Williamsburg from 1736 to 1780, available via their Digital Library.

These sources, however, sometimes obscure portions of the past even as they provide greater illumination for other parts. Everyday use damaged some sources even before they found their way into an archive or library. Others have suffered the ravages of time. Poor photography has contributed to the illegibility of some digital surrogates.

Consider today’s featured advertisement. At a glance, readers can identify it as an advertisement for a runaway thanks to the mostly legible first two words as well as the muddy outline of a woodcut depicting a fugitive. Although such woodcuts most often accompanied advertisements about enslaved people who escaped, they sometimes appeared in notices about indentured servants and convict servants. Readers with experience examining similar advertisements might spot the word “Mulatto” on the second line and then reasonably extrapolate it to “Mulatto slave.” Most of the rest of the advertisement is illegible, except for the name of the advertiser at the end. Who was the slaveholder who sought the return of an enslaved person who attempted to escape from bondage? Thomas Jefferson.

Like most other eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, especially runaway advertisements, this notice ran for multiple weeks. Sometimes this allows readers the opportunity to read the same advertisement in another issue, but in this case other insertions are not much more legible. Jefferson’s advertisement first ran on September 7. Look for it near the top of the third column on the third page. A portion of the page was cut out at some point. What remains of Jefferson’s advertisement is only partially legible, but not his name on the final line. The advertisement ran again on September 21, the first item in the final column on the final page. The digital image of this insertion is more legible; an experienced reader could carefully transcribe most of the advertisement. The advertisement is accessible, but not easy to read. This time the fault appears to lie with poor photography rather than the vagaries of time damaging the page.

Due to the prominence of the enslaver who sought the return of his human property, this advertisement has been transcribed and made widely available by the National Archives. The presentation includes the complete text, but not an image, of the advertisement. Other content from the September 14 edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette, including an advertisement for “sundry SLAVES” to the right of Jefferson’s notice, remains inaccessible via digital surrogates. Other extant copies may be much more legible, but readers who rely on digitized sources do not have ready access to those. Digitization of historical sources helps to tell a more complete story of the past, but the digitization does not necessarily make any source readily accessible.

May 7

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

May 7 - 5:4:1769 Virginia Gazette Purdie and Dixon
Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (May 4, 1769).
“Best HARD SOAP at 6d. by the box.”

In the spring of 1769, Freer Armston,, a chandler and soap boiler in Norfolk, Virginia, attempted to enlarge his market by expanding his operations into Williamsburg. He placed an advertisement in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to inform prospective customers that he had opened a new shop where he sold “TALLOW CANDLES as good as any on the continent.” With such a bold statement, Armston favorably compared his wares to any others that consumers could acquire.

To make his candles even more attractive, he took the unusual step of naming their price in his advertisement: “by the box 11 d. paying freight from Norfolk.” Advertisers rarely listed prices in eighteenth-century newspapers, though many often made general appeals to low or reasonable prices. Readers likely knew what to expect to pay for a box of tallow candles from other chandlers and shopkeepers in Williamsburg. As a newcomer, Armston attempted to stimulate interest in his merchandise by allowing prospective customers to assess on their own whether he offered a deal. He did the same for his “Best HARD SOAP at 6d. by the box, or 7d. halfpenny [sic] small quantities.” He was not as verbose about the quality of his soap, simply describing it as “Best,” and instead emphasized the price and potential savings by buying in bulk. Customers saved twenty percent when they purchased an entire box of hard soap.

Armston also sought to establish that he was a careful and responsible entrepreneur. In addition to selling candles and soap, he asked readers to provide him with supplies, especially “good WOOD ASHES” used in the production of soap, for which he offered “goods or money.” He was vigilant when it came to accepting ashes from Black men and women, assuming that some did not acquire them by legitimate means. Armston instructed that “all persons that send by or give their ashes to Negroes” must also send a note specifying that they had done so or else he would not accept them. The chandler and soap boiler was not about to give “goods or money” to Black people who could not demonstrate how they came into possession of ashes they delivered to his shop. In addition to offering quality goods at low prices, Armston depicted himself as a good neighbor who attended to maintaining proper order in his business dealings.