December 17

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

dec-17-12171766-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes … was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, issued a retraction of one of the advertisements that appeared in the December 17 issue: “The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes, &c. belonging to the estate of Mr. William Smith, deceased, was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

That advertisement by Matthew Roche, the Provost Marshal, would have looked familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated “12 Nov. 1766,” it had appeared in previous issues in order to give interested parties sufficient advance notice that slaves, cattle, horses, and fifty acres of land that included a “handsome dwelling house, garden, tan-yard, and several other convenient buildings” would be auctioned “on Tuesday the 16th day of December, 1766.”

That’s right: December 16, the day before the issue was dated and distributed for public consumption. Johnston did not publish the retraction because the sale had been canceled but instead because it truly had been printed “by mistake,” a mistake made in the office of the printer.

That Johnston overlooked this advertisement, not noticing that the new issue included an outdated advertisement until after the broadsheet had already been printed on one side, raises some interesting questions about advertisements that ran for more than a few weeks. Did advertisers contract and pay to have those advertisements repeatedly inserted? Or, did some advertisements serve as filler, published gratis, when printers lacked other content?

Johnston may have been distracted with filling the final page with advertisements already set in type; that would explain how he overlooked the date of the auction of William Smith’s estate. The same issue included other advertisements that ran for months (not just for weeks): Donald Mackay’s advertisement for a runaway slave (dated “5th August, 1766”) and the sale of Baillie’s Island by the executors of Colonel Kenneth Baillie (first published in November 1766 and repeated well into 1767). Mackay and Baillie’s executors may very well have arranged for their advertisements to appear so many times.

If they did not, however, that suggests that printers sometimes used advertisements for their own purposes in constructing complete issues of their newspapers. While it may be tempting to argue that some advertisers repeated their notices frequently because they believed in the power of advertising (or, in the case of Mackay, because he really wanted to retrieve Maria, “a TALL SLIM LIKELY NEGROE GIRL”), it is also important to question whether the advertisers themselves were indeed responsible for how frequently their notices appeared.

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