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, August 07, 2020

The Launch of the Massachusetts Spy

On Tuesday, 7 Aug 1770, 250 years ago today, the second issue of the Massachusetts Spy appeared.

The very first issue, dated 17 July, was a test to drum up subscriptions, distributed for free. The printers had projected regular publication to start at the end of the month. That schedule slipped, and the 7 August issue was their first attempt to publish on a steady schedule.

The men behind the Massachusetts Spy were twenty-one-year-old Isaiah Thomas and his former master, Zechariah Fowle.

Since Thomas had ended their initial relationship unilaterally—i.e., he ran away to Nova Scotia in 1765 and to North Carolina the next year—one might expect Fowle to be leery of a becoming partners with him.

But Thomas had settled down a bit during his second stint away from Boston, which he spent mostly in Charleston, South Carolina. There he had worked steadily as a journeyman for a printer and bookseller named Robert Wells.

Thomas had also gotten married to a woman from Bermuda named Mary Dill. Their first child (and perhaps the reason for their marriage) was stillborn, but they were having more. Thus, when Thomas returned to Boston in the spring of 1770, he was no longer a headstrong apprentice but a practiced printer with a family to support.

Boston already had more weekly newspapers per capita than any other port in British North America, but the closing of Mein and Fleeming’s Boston Chronicle on 25 June appeared to open space for something new.

Thomas later described his business strategy like this:
The Massachusetts Spy was calculated to obtain subscriptions from mechanics, and other classes of people who had not much time to spare from business. It was to be published three times a week, viz. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Twice in the week it was to be printed on a quarter of a sheet, and once on a half sheet. When published in this way, news was conveyed fresh to subscribers, and the contents of a Spy might with convenience be read at a leisure moment.
All the other Boston papers appeared only once a week—three of them on Monday and the Boston News-Letter on Thursday. The Chronicle had issued two full issues each week, but Mein and Fleeming had the financial backing of the Customs office and a subscriber base drawn from the friends of the royal government. Three issues a week, even if they used no more paper than one weekly, would be a strain.

Thomas and Fowle announced their price as “Five Shillings, Lawful Money per Annum.” In contrast, the Boston Chronicle charged 6s.8d. in 1767, as did the Salem Gazette in 1768 and the Norwich Packet in 1773. The Massachusetts Spy was thus a discount paper—smaller price, smaller sheet, maybe a little less news, but more often.

The July preview invited people who wanted to subscribe to visit Fowle “in Back-Street” or Thomas “in School-House-Lane, near the Latin School”—i.e., School Street. By August, the partners were issuing the paper from “the New Printing-Office, in Union-Street,” near the center of town.

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