What Calvin Ridley Bet On in 1754

In 1754, Benjamin Franklin made a bet with his friend and business partner, John Smith. The gist of the bet was that, if Smith’s Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper achieved a profit of at least £500 in its first year of publication, then Ben and John would consider themselves officially ‘beer buddies’ and forever friends. Now, 525 years later, we get to ponder whether or not Ben and John actually fulfilled their side of the bargain.

Publishing Trends

Franklin and Smith knew what they were getting themselves into. In those days, setting up a newspaper was both costly and time consuming; it needed a substantial capital investment and months, even years, of careful planning and execution to be sure of a successful outcome. To make matters worse, the printed newspaper had not yet been widely adopted across the country, so the success of their venture depended very much on whether or not they could find an audience for their product in their chosen location.

Newspaper publishers in 1754 faced a pretty daunting array of challenges. For one thing, the vast majority of people back then still got their news from more traditional sources like local bookstores and church fairs, where attendees would stroll down the aisles, eyes open, skimming the latest issue of their favorite publication. For a second, getting an audience was a difficult task in itself. In those days, before the advent of widespread literacy, the only way for a newspaper to reach a broad audience was through the medium of ‘penny papers’, or ‘newspapers for the masses’, as they were often called. Although these publications came in many different shapes and sizes, they all had one thing in common: they were extremely cheap and could be found in almost every neighborhood in the country.

Penny Papers

This brings us to the most vital and unique aspect of the 1754 bet: the type of newspaper they published. Ben and John chose to publish what are now known as ‘penny papers’, or ‘newspapers for the masses’. These publications were usually short in length and incredibly easy to consume, owing to the fact that they were designed to be read and dropped into a public restroom or porta-potty (as they were often euphemistically called in those days).

Penny papers were inexpensive to produce and distribute, which meant that more of them could be sold for the same price as one traditionally more expensive newspaper. The penny papers were also very easy to understand and popular because they contained only the bare essentials of news and information. They also usually came with cheerful, childlike caricatures of attractive young women on the front cover, which was eye-catching and engaging to virtually any audience.

This type of newspaper became extremely popular across Europe and especially in England, where there was an entire cottage industry of satirical newspapers that poked fun at British political figures and events. But, in America, the newsboys, or ‘rag-pickers’ as they were affectionately called, turned out in droves for the new fad, too.

Reaching A Mass Audience

Whether or not Ben and John’s newspapers were a smashing success, they undoubtedly achieved their goal of attracting an audience, which turned out to be very well-heeled and influential. Before long, they were publishing as many as six different newspapers, ranging from the morning ‘post’ to the evening ‘penny press’ (which was a newspaper published for one penny, or one twentieth of a penny.) They also started a book publishing arm, printing books on a variety of topics, from gardening and cooking to literature and politics.

Franklin and Smith’s success is all the more impressive when one considers that they started their newspaper in a small town that had a population of just 2,500. By the time they died, each had a personal estate worth £150,000, a library containing 28,000 volumes, and hundreds of pounds worth of silverware.

Celebrity Imposters

The fact that their newspaper was so well-regarded and influential did not, however, insulate Benjamin and John from the sometimes vicious world of celebrity impersonation. The ‘Gazette’ boasted some of the most famous names in American journalism at the time, and the fame and fortune that came with being a ‘hack’ for the paper was just too tempting an offer to turn down. It seems that, for whatever reason, numerous well-known ‘celebs’ chose to advertise in the paper, which made it a perfect fit for their needs.

In 1755, the paper’s publisher admitted as much, noting in a letter to a friend that “our advertisements have been more than usually successful; for, besides the advantage of their being able to be answered, people have been so taken with our editorial slangs and merry jests that they have quite neglected to object to the gross frauds practiced upon them by imposters portraying their well-known personages.”

A Mix Of Entertainment And Information

Because of their fame and fortune, Franklin and Smith were able to indulge their passion for entertaining their audience with a cornucopia of satirical news, gossip, and celebrity tidbits. They also published highly detailed geographical maps of North America at the time, which were a great source of interest to settlers and would-be pioneers toiling at a hand-spinning wheel. Maps were a luxury item in those days, as the majority of people could not read and had to depend on the good sense and diligence of those who could to keep them apprised of the world around them. Therefore, detailed maps like the one published by Franklin and Smith were a rare commodity, and something to be prized and looked up to as a sign of progress and learning. The broad general readership that the paper enjoyed also gave it a level of political significance and influence that surpassed even that of the man it was named after.

Bringing In The Subscriptions

An important aspect of any newspaper is the ability to secure subscriptions from its audience; without them, the product will never find its way to the newsstands, and the whole enterprise will be for naught. Although the number of subscribers was fairly small in comparison to the daily circulation, it still represented a pool of money that could be tapped into to further the publication’s progress. In addition to printing newspapers, Ben and John started a wholesale grocery business, which they named the ‘Grocery Society’, and began publishing educational tomes on a range of subjects, from agriculture to mathematics.

Franklin and Smith’s business acumen and drive for success was clearly on display in all they touched. Whether or not their 1754 bet led to a life of leisure, it was surely a success in terms of securing an audience, making him enough money to satisfy his material needs and aspirations. But, more importantly, it established him as an important figure in early America.