What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD … ALL the estate of said deceased.”
Today’s advertisement had an exceptionally unusual layout: four columns of about twelve lines each, rotated counterclockwise relative to other items, positioned on the left side of the final page of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Another advertisement on the other side of the sheet had a similar layout, rotated clockwise and positioned on the right side of the page.
When I first encountered similar layouts in the New-Hampshire Gazette I hoped to make an argument that advertisers played a role in the graphic design decisions, that they attempted to draw attention to their notices through creative and jarring layouts that departed from readers’ expectations. Upon consulting original copies of the New-Hampshire Gazette, however, I discovered that the printers’ paper supply had apparently been disrupted temporarily and they compensated by finding means to squeeze as much type as had already been set to completely fill smaller broadsheets.
Something similar seems to have happened here. Unfortunately, my local archive does not have copies of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette in its collections and Accessible Archives, like other databases of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers, does not provide metadata concerning the dimensions of each page. Still, based on experience working with other newspapers printed in the 1760s as well as their digital surrogates in multiple databases, I can advance a reasonable explanation for the unusual layout of today’s advertisement.
Most issues of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, like newspapers printed throughout the colonies, were four pages, created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. Each page had four columns of news, advertisements, and other content. For the January 30, 1767, issue, these pages were numbered  through 22. Pages 23 and 24, featuring the unique layout, appeared to be printed on smaller sheets with just enough room for two regular columns and a third made from dividing an advertisement into four shorter columns and rotating each. Both of the advertisements given this treatment had appeared in a single column in the previous issue. The type had been set, making it relatively easy to reposition it for the smaller sheet. The previous issue also had two extra pages, but apparently on a slightly larger sheet that allowed for three full columns on each side. In neither case were these additional sheets entitled a supplement.
Most likely pages 23 and 24 did not appear sequentially when delivered to, or read by, subscribers. Instead, the smaller sheet would have been tucked inside the larger newspapers. These extra pages featured advertising exclusively, as did the extra pages in the previous issue. Robert Wells, the printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, may have taken in so many advertisements that he considered it necessary to provide the extra sheet as a means of not falling behind in their publication. After all, the colophon encouraged readers to submit advertisements, an important revenue stream for any newspaper publisher in eighteenth-century America. If Wells, who competed with printers of two other newspapers in Charleston, wanted to continue to receive advertisements then he needed to publish and distribute them quickly rather than resorting to an apology sometimes issued by printers: “advertisement omitted will appear in our next.”
In the end, Samuel Wise most likely had little control over the unique layout of today’s advertisement. Still, he and all the other advertisers whose notices appeared on the supplemental sheet perhaps benefitted from the extra attention it may have garnered among readers.