‘Passengers Wishing to Embrace This Commodious Conveyance, Will Apply Immediately’: The Rise in Emigrant Passage Advertising in the Scottish Borders, 1800-1830

This article, first published in 2008, explored changes in emigrant-focused advertising, namely passage advertisements, in the Border periodical press during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century.  It later formed an integral part of my PhD dissertation and was the inspiration of my current work with late-Georgian newspapers.

The use of newspapers in Scottish emigration studies is well established. Quotations from major papers were readily used in Allan MacInnes’ source book Scotland and the Americas. Aberdeen periodicals offered Marjory Harper’s study of North-eastern emigration a better understanding the direction of migrant departure. Krisztina Fenyö used a broad base of periodicals in her 2000 study of public sentiment regarding the Highland Clearances. In fact, along with the Statistical Accounts, Scottish newspapers are some of the most oft-used sources for those delving into the Scottish migration. Historians have often used editors as gauges of popular sentiment, aligning them with particular classes or regions; Fenyö was particularly successful in doing this. However, this method concentrates on editorial content as a personal voice rather than a commercial enterprise, as this study intends to do. While a well-chosen quotation can clinch a historian’s argument, these papers offer the historian a much greater tool, if they are examined not only as a means to an end but as a form of expression themselves.

Although the periodical press was an important avenue of political and religious thought, by the late eighteenth century the press was in many respects a commercial animal. Whatever its political beliefs, whatever its stance on the morality of its neighbours, it needed advertising revenue.  So, as the Scottish press matured, so too did the marketing material it contained. According to Hamish Mathison, between 1720 and 1780, Scottish newspaper advertisements became more numerous, frequent and sophisticated. The products offered in them became more varied, more often targeted at consumers rather than tradesmen, and advertising language and techniques evolved, utilizing tricks such as the faux open letters to engage the reader’s attention. As their importance grew, they crept from the back page further inward, eventually finding their place on the front. Furthermore, the advertisements were not just a supplementary source of income. They were in many respects the key to a paper’s success.  Advertisements, especially those directed at consumers, attracted readers to a paper, increasing its circulation, and the higher circulation numbers attracted the more advertisers willing to pay for space, the cycle spiralling, hopefully, to financial success.

However, in the thirty year period between 1800 and 1830, Scottish papers were particularly scarce of emigrant-focused advertising. There were none of the notices for settlement supplies and few for the guidebooks that Harper found in the Aberdeen journals in later decades. Nor was there more than a handful of notices for foreign land or employment. These were just emerging in the 1820s, near the end of our period. Yet, Scots were emigrating, and private enterprise was not as apathetic as it may first appear. There was in fact one aspect of the emigration trade that was alive and well at the turn of the 19th century—emigrant passage. By examining the evolution of these advertisements, so numerous and focused in the rural Border market, this study hopes to discover the relationship between supply and demand in this  burgeoning trade. But we cannot study these advertisements in a vacuum.


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