What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Hand-Bills, Advertisements, &c. printed at the shortest Notice.”
In the colophon for each edition of the Georgia Gazette, James Johnston informed readers that they could submit “Advertisements, Letters of Intelligence, and Subscriptions for this Paper” at his “Printing-Office in Broughton-Street” in Savannah. In effect, Johnston used the colophon to advertise advertisements. To some extent, it seemed to work. Advertising filled three out of eight columns of the April 29, 1767, issue, making the balance of news items and paid notices comparable to what appeared in many other newspapers throughout the colonies in the 1760s (at least those that did not distribute supplements devoted primarily to advertising). The nature of the advertising, however, differed significantly from the notices printed in newspapers in cities like Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. Advertisements for consumer goods placed by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans accounted for a significant portion of all paid notices in those places. The Georgia Gazette, on the other hand, did not attract many advertisers promoting the assortment of goods featured so prominently in newspapers from other places.
Did this matter to Johnston? Did the printer care which sorts of advertisements he published as long he had enough to fill the pages of each issue and generate additional revenue to supplement the subscription fees? Perhaps not, but when he received newspapers from other colonies he almost certainly realized that he was missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity. Many of his counterparts operated businesses that benefited from purveyors of consumer goods and providers of services competing with each other for potential customers in the public prints, placing new advertisements week after week.
Why did so few shopkeepers and merchants advertise in the Georgia Gazette? Certainly Savannah was a smaller town than most others with newspapers, but the shipping news did indicate the arrival of two vessels since the previous issue. The brigantine Ann had sailed from London, presumably carrying a similar assortment of consumer goods as those advertised regularly throughout the rest of the colonies. Did the relatively small size of the town alone account for the absence of any advertisements at least announcing the arrival of new merchandise? Merchants and shopkeepers in Savannah probably did not face the same level of competition as in bustling port cities, yet it was still in their own best interests to attempt to incite demand in their wares.
Many newspapers published in the quarter century before the Revolution contained a vibrant array of advertisements for consumer goods and services, testifying to a consumer revolution experienced in both Britain and the colonies. As they read their local newspaper, residents of Savannah (and New London and, to a lesser extent, Providence and Portsmouth) experienced a very different textual landscape of advertising for consumer goods compared to the multitude of advertisements for consumer goods that filled the pages of newspapers in larger cities and sometimes even flowed over into advertising supplements. Consumer culture was widespread throughout the colonies, but advertising was uneven.