By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services
If you are someone who regularly reads Boston newspapers, then you probably have noticed a few advertisements within the pages. In fact, on a given day you might find several pages worth of advertisements in a single issue. And then there is the Sunday edition which comes with an entire section composed solely of ads. Occasionally, these can be useful to inform about upcoming events, special deals at a department store, or penny-saving coupons at the grocery story. More often, though, they can seem a bit of a nuisance and waste of material, taking up space and distracting from the articles.
But did you know that the first time a paid advertisement appeared in an American newspaper it happened here in Boston?
By the start of the 18th century, the New England colonies were thriving and the population was steadily increasing along with its wealth, enterprise, and intelligence. Even foreign countries began to look at Massachusetts with interest, and colonists desired acquaintance with affairs in England, Europe, and the other colonies in British America. “Such increase of population and trade must naturally call for a publication, of the common character of newspapers.”[i]
The Boston News-Letter, the first regularly published newspaper in the British Colonies of North America, began publication on 17 April 1704. This newspaper was “published by authority” and featured all of the latest news from London, though with the time it took to cross the Atlantic, there was usually a delay of three months or so. At the very end of the inaugural issue, publisher John Campbell included a short paragraph announcing that any person could insert a small notice at a “reasonable rate.”
It was only two weeks later in issue number three, dated 1 May – 8 May 1704, 309 years ago this week that the first three paid advertisements appeared. The ads called for the recovery of stolen goods, information about lost anvils, and even information about real estate available on Long Island, New York.
While these ads appear to be regarding fairly mundane matters, readers only had to wait a couple of weeks for this new “social media” to get more interesting. In issue number five, 15 May-22 May 1704, readers looking for adventure got their opportunity.
Sadly, only two weeks later, one would also see two ads that, by today’s standards, are a bit more insidious. In issue number eight, we are reminded that Massachusetts was not always a cradle of liberty and that people were property.
What do you think today’s advertisements will look like to researchers in 300 years? Maybe they will wonder how we ever got by driving automobiles relying on fossil fuels or how we kept time with something as simple as a Cartier watch. Will they look at personal ads as a definition of human interaction in our time?
To see more examples of the early days of advertising in American newspapers, consult our online catalog, ABIGAIL, or visit the library at the MHS to see what other early Massachusetts newspaper titles we have in our collections!
[i] Bradford, Alden, History of Massachusetts, for two hundred years: from the year 1620 to 1820, Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1835.