J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

Colonial Newspaper Advertising Rates

In 1884 the U.S. Census Office published a report called “The Newspaper and Periodical Press” by S. N. D. North, who would become a leading statistician.

That essay offers answers to some difficult questions about the business of newspaper publishing in colonial America, starting with how much it cost to insert an advertisement:
In the colonial press it was rarely that a newspaper made any publication of advertising rates, it being customary to announce, instead, that advertisements would be “taken in” at “reasonable rates” or a “moderate price”. The inference is fair that the early printers were glad to get what they could for this kind of business, and it is certain that no such thing as a fixed standard of advertising rates was ever arrived at among them.

Some illustrations may be given: The Virginia Gazette announced that “advertisements of moderate length would be inserted for 3 shillings the first week and 2 shillings each week after”. [I looked in William Park’s Virginia Gazette in 1737, William Hunter’s paper of the same name in 1751, Purdie and Dixon’s rival paper of the same name in 1766, and William Rind’s rival paper in 1771—I found the same price information in all of them.]

The Maryland Gazette [in 1752] promised to publish “advertisements of moderate length for 5 shillings the first week and 1 shilling each time after, and long ones in proportion”. The New Jersey Gazette, as late as 1777, inserted “advertisements of moderate length for 7 shillings 6 pence for the first week, 2 shillings 6 pence for every continuance, and long ones in proportion”. 
Only in Philadelphia before the revolution was advertising a source of considerable profit to publishers. In both Bradford’s and [Benjamin] Franklin’s [Pennsylvania Gazette] papers it became such.
It’s not clear how North reached that last conclusion about profitability. I’m not even sure what North meant by “Bradford’s” paper since there were two printers in colonial Philadelphia named Bradford (Andrew and his nephew William) and they each published a newspaper (the American Weekly Mercury and the Pennsylvania Journal).

Knowing that the phrase “moderate length” was standard in announcements of advertising prices allowed me to find some additional examples from colonial American newspapers:
  • Hugh Gaine’s New-York Mercury, 1756: 5 shillings.
  • William Weyman’s New-York Gazette, 1759: 5 shillings.
  • John Holt’s New-York Journal, 1766: 5 shillings first week, 1s. for each further.
  • John Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet as announced in other newspapers, 1771: “Three Shillings each for one week, and One Shilling for each continuance”
  • John Carter’s Providence Gazette, 1771: “(accompanied with the Pay)…three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful, and Ninepence for each Week after”.
  • James Davis’s North-Carolina Gazette, 1775: 3s. the first week, 2s. for each further week, same as the Virginia Gazette.
  • Samuel Loudon’s New-York Packet, 1776: 5s. for four weeks.
And what about Boston? When the Boston News-Letter was launched in 1704, its publisher promised advertising rates “from Twelve-Pence to Five Shillings, & not to exceed.” That’s a big range, with no statement about the size of ad or how long it would run. And I couldn’t find any Boston newspapers publicizing their advertising prices for the next seventy-two years.

2 comments:

Richard Subber said...

Do you have any idea about what a shilling was worth in the middle of the 18th century?
Thanks

J. L. Bell said...

That’s not an easy question to answer because some things are relatively more expensive than they were in the eighteenth century and others are relatively cheaper. This posting quotes prices for some other printed material. I’m now planning a posting on using bread prices as a yardstick.