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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Friday, July 21, 2017

Colonial Newspaper Subscription Prices

Last month I posted twice about the cost of advertising in colonial American newspapers.

One source of those articles, the 1884 U.S. Census Office report “The Newspaper and Periodical Press” by S. N. D. North, also discussed what pre-Revolutionary newspapers charged their readers for subscriptions:
The colonial newspapers were sold at prices which varied according to the location and the currency of that location. The latter fluctuated so frequently in value that it is not always possible at this date to determine precisely the sum that the publisher regarded himself entitled to receive from his patrons; but there is sufficient reason to believe that this sum was a nearly uniform one in the respective colonies, and that it did not vary greatly in any one colony from the standard established in all the others.

John Campbell, when he founded the News-Letter in 1704, may be said to have established for his own and for subsequent generations the prevailing price of the weekly newspaper. He received the equivalent of $2 of our present currency, but did not think it worth while to advertise his price of subscription in the paper itself. This was a neglect to take advantage of an opportunity which found several imitators in the subsequent colonial newspapers. The Boston Gazette and Weekly Journal (1719) was sold for 16s. a year, and 20s. when sealed, payable quarterly, and at the value of currency at that time this was equivalent to $250 in our present money.

The American Magazine, a monthly periodical of 50 pages, founded in 1743, was sold for 3s., new tenor, a quarter, being at the rate of 50 cents, or $2 per annum. The Rehearsal, founded in 1731, was sold originally for 20s., but was reduced from that price to 16s. when [Thomas] Fleet took possession of it in 1733.

The Boston Advertiser was sold for 5s.4d. “lawful money”, and the Boston Chronicle (1767) for 6s.8d.—“but a very small consideration for a newspaper on a large sheet and well printed,” according to [Isaiah] Thomas, but likely to be regarded as a high price for a similar newspaper in these days.

The Christian History, weekly, 1743, was sold for 2s., new tenor, per quarter, but subsequently 6d. more was added to its price, “covered, sealed, and directed.” The American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, a monthly of 50 pages, sold for 3s., new tenor, per quarter, the equivalent of $150 per year.

Nevertheless, 6s.8d. appears to have been the ruling price at this period, for the Salem Essex Gazette (1768) and the Norwich Packet (1773) were vended at that rate. The New Hampshire Gazette (1756) was sold for “one dollar per annum, or its equivalent in bills of credit, computing a dollar this year at four pounds, old tenor”. The Portsmouth Mercury (1765) was sold for “one dollar, or six pounds o.t. per year; one-half to be paid at entrance”.

Thomas Fleet, who discontinued the Weekly Rehearsal in 1735 and began the publication of the Boston Evening Post on a half sheet of large foolscap paper, regarded the prevailing price for newspapers altogether too low, and in a dunning advertisement to his subscribers he declared:
In the days of Mr. Campbell, who published a newspaper here, which is forty years ago, Paper was bought for eight or nine shillings a Ream, and now tis Five Pounds; his Paper was never more than half a sheet, and that he had Two Dollars a year for, and had also the art of getting his Pay for it; and that size has continued until within a little more than one year, since which we are expected to publish a whole Sheet, so that the Paper now stands us in near as much as all the other charges.
In Pennsylvania the prices of newspapers were more uniform than in New England. The Philadelphia American Weekly Mercury, the first paper founded in that city, and the first outside of New England, being the third in the colonies, was sold for 10s. per annum. The Philadelphia Gazette (1733) was sold for the same price, as was also the Philadelphia Journal (1766), the Chronicle (1767), and the Ledger (1775). The Philadelphia Evening Post, founded in 1775, and issued three times a week, was sold at a price of two pennies for each paper, or 3s. the quarter. The Dutch [actually German] and English Gazette was sold for 10s. in 1749, when it was a weekly publication, and for 5s. in 1751, when it became a fortnightly publication.

The New York Weekly Journal (1733) was sold for 3s. the quarter. The Virginia Gazette (1766) was 12s.6d. per year [Purdie and Dixon offered that price in 1770, William Rind the same in 1771]. There was a notable increase in prices during the war in several cases, and the New Jersey Gazette, which was founded in 1777, fixed its price at 26s. per annum.
Supplementing North’s rundown, here are the subscription prices I found this spring:
  • New-England Courant under (nominally) Benjamin Franklin, 1723, 12s. per year or 4d. each issue.
  • New-York Mercury under Hugh Gaine, 1756, 12s. per year, rising to 14s. in 1757 to defray the cost of a provincial stamp tax, plus another 7s.6d. for delivery to Connecticut.
  • Massachusetts Spy under Zechariah Fowle and Isaiah Thomas, 1770, 5s. 
  • Massachusetts Spy under Thomas alone, 1774, 6s.8d. unsealed, 8s. “sealed and directed.” Thomas continued to charge that price after moving to Worcester in 1775.
  • Pennsylvania Packet under John Dunlap, 1771, 10s.
  • North-Carolina Gazette under James Davis, 1775, 16s.
  • New-York Packet under Samuel Loudon, 1776, 12s.


Anonymous said...

The last few prices quoted are some what lengths of subscriptions? Thank you --

J. L. Bell said...

All yearly subscriptions unless stated otherwise.

Ben Talman said...

Interesting to see the subscription rates for the Boston Gazette and Country Journal, the newspaper that my 6x great-grandfather ran. In 2005 I accepted on his behalf, an award for 'Services to Journalism' known as the Yankee Quill, bestowed posthuumously by the Academy of New England Journalists, The New England Chapter - Society of Professional Journalists and the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. His legacy lives on in Boston with 'The Printing Office of Edes and Gill' a historic interpretive site.