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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The New Massachusetts Spy

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Massachusetts Spy had gone a full month without a new issue.

Zechariah Fowle and Isaiah Thomas had launched that newspaper in the summer of 1770 with ambitious goals. As described back here, it was smaller than the established Boston papers but promised to make up for that by appearing three times a week.

By October, Fowle had dropped out of the enterprise, and the Spy was appearing only twice a week. Thomas was still trying to appeal to more working-class readers than his competitors.

On 2 Feb 1771, Thomas published his last Saturday issue. And the last issue on any day for more than a month. He had already started to solicit subscriptions for a paper with a different design.

On 7 March, Thomas brought the Massachusetts Spy back, now as a weekly newspaper with four pages and four columns per page. In other words, printed in much the same format and at the same schedule as every other Boston newspaper.

The main distinction was that Thomas’s Spy came out on Thursdays, a day that Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter had had to itself for many years. The three other surviving newspapers, including Edes and Gill’s fervently Whig Boston Gazette, were published on Mondays.

Thomas later wrote about how the change in publication affected his business:
The majority of the customers for the former Spy preferred the way in which it had been published, and withdrew their subscriptions. On the appearance of this, the subscribers did not amount to two hundred; but after the first week they encreased daily, and in the course of two years the subscription list was larger than that of any other newspaper printed in Newengland.
I frankly don’t believe that last claim, but there’s no way to know for sure.

As for the newspaper’s editorial line, Thomas claimed political neutrality, printing the front page with the motto: “A Weekly, Political and Commercial PAPER; open to ALL Parties, but influenced by None.” He later wrote:
A number of gentlemen supplied this paper with political essays, which for the time were more particularly calculated for that class of citizens, who had composed the great majority of its readers. For a few weeks, some communications were furnished by those who were in favor of the royal prerogative, but they were exceeded by the writers on the other side; and the authors and subscribers, among the tories, denounced and quitted the Spy. The publisher then devoted it to the cause of his country, supported by the whigs, under whose banners he had enlisted.
In fact, Thomas’s own Whig leaning was in display from that first weekly issue. The first item was a column with thick black borders and a skull ornament mourning “Preston’s Massacre” one year before. With the second issue Thomas added a woodcut of “the goddess of Liberty sitting near a pedestal” to the left of the newspaper’s name. The Massachusetts Spy was another paper firmly behind the liberty party.

(One can buy a poster of the front page of the 7 Mar 1771 issue of the Massachusetts Spy here.)


David Lavery said...

Hello Mr. Bell, which newspaper database would you recommend using to view the spy papers? I'm interested to see the woodcut which you described. Various public libraries have access to various newspaper databases, so I was hoping to figure out which one for this paper. Many thanks, and sorry to bother you with a trivial question.

J. L. Bell said...

I subscribe to the Readex Early American Newspapers database through GenealogyBank.com. Some larger public libraries may have Readex access, and may university libraries do as well.

You can also click on the picture above to go to the site selling the poster, where the picture is larger.