September 14

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

sep-14-9131766-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (September 13, 1744).

“Likewise to be sold at the same Place …”

Most readers of the Providence Gazette in 1766 probably would not have paused to question if this constituted one advertisement or two separate advertisements. For historians of printing and/or advertising interested in quantifying and analyzing the number of advertisements that appeared in colonial newspapers, on the other hand, it raises a conundrum.

At first glance, it appears to be a single advertisement, especially since the phrase “Likewise to be sold at the same place” functions as a transition from a list of books for sale to a more elaborate description of a particular book sold by the same advertiser. However, the two halves of this advertisement appeared separately, in different columns, in the previous issue. The list of books appeared at the bottom of a column and the advertisement for the pamphlet on making pearl ashes was at the top of the next column. This would have had the effect of presenting them sequentially to anybody who read the newspaper from first page to last, even through they were spatially separated. The printer likely intended them to be distinct, yet related advertisements. Still, the absence of a line separating them when they appeared one above the other (the same sort of line that defined the boundaries of other advertisements that appeared in the issue) serves as a visual cue indicating a single advertisement.

For the most part, it doesn’t much matter if this was one advertisement or two, though it does demonstrate that printers were able to leave some content (namely advertisements) in their forms and move them around to fit their needs from issue to issue.

Still, this presents a frustrating situation for certain research questions. For other projects I have attempted to count the number of advertisements placed by members of the book trade as a proportion of total advertisements. This example, if counted only once, downplays the influence of printers and booksellers on eighteenth-century advertising, especially considering its length relative to other advertisements in the same issue. This suggests that tabulating column inches would be a better method for making such assessments, but that method would be much more labor intensive (not necessarily a good justification for not doing it) as well as impossible to do with microfilmed and/or digitized sources that do not include measurements among the metadata (a better explanation for not measuring column inches). For researchers that do not have access to the original newspapers, tabulating column inches simply would not be possible. Counting how many advertisements appeared, while flawed, at least allows for some sort of metrics when working with surrogates rather than original sources.

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