What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“[… advertisement clipped from original copy …]”
The contents of today’s featured advertisement remain a mystery. At some point, an advertisement was cut out of the copy of the May 30, 1766, issue of the Virginia Gazette that was photographed and digitized for broader public and scholarly consumption. Similarly, an advertisement seemingly of the same length was cut out of the next two issues (June 9 and 13) as well. Perhaps it was the same advertisement.
Why was the advertisement cut out of the newspaper? When did it happen? Answering these questions would help to understand the reception of eighteenth-century advertising – how colonial readers responded to marketing – if indeed the advertisement had been excised by the original subscriber or another reader in 1766. Too many possibilities exist to even claim that the advertisement was removed by one of those readers.
It’s possible that the printer removed the advertisement for some reason. Notice the marks and numbers on the page. This copy may have been used for accounting and keeping track of how many times each advertisement appeared. While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the printer removed evidence that an advertisement had been published, it may have made sense for other reasons at the time.
The advertiser may have cut out the advertisement. A local shopkeeper may have submitted it to the other local newspaper for publication in its pages. A master attempting to recover a runaway slave or servant may have forwarded copies to newspapers in other cities in nearby colonies with instructions to reprint the same advertisement. If it was a legal notice, the advertiser may have clipped it to add to his or her records.
A consumer may have clipped the advertisement in order to bring it along when visiting a shopkeeper or merchant or artisan. A reader who suspected he or she could identify a runaway slave or servant may have cut it out and carried it in order to refer to the description of the runaway’s appearance and clothing.
Alternately, the advertisement may have been removed at a later time by a collector or by a descendant who recognized the name of a relative. It may have found a special place in a new context with other artifacts from the colonial period – or, upon being removed, it may have been discarded that much more easily rather than preserved like the rest of this issue of the Virginia Gazette.
Somebody noticed this advertisement. Somebody made use of it. Who, when, and for what purpose, however, remain questions without ready answers.