What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just imported and to be Sold by John Mein At the LONDON BOOK-STORE.”
John Mein regularly advertised in the Massachusetts Gazette in 1767. He also advertised in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Boston Post-Boy. With so many local publications carrying news and advertising to local consumers, he increased the likelihood that potential customers would be exposed to his advertisements.
The length of Mein’s advertisements may have also drawn attention. Shopkeepers frequently placed advertisements that extended half a column or more, but rarely did they exceed a single column. Mein, however, inserted advertisements that overflowed into second and sometimes even third columns. The variable length of his advertisements suggests that he may have submitted extensive sample advertisements to newspaper offices with an understanding that they would include as much as possible but truncate them to fit the space available. In such cases, printers and compositors would have played a role in editing advertising copy even though they were not responsible for generating it.
This particular advertisement may have also drawn attention because it covered almost the entire front page of the July 16 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette, almost squeezing out a notice for a “Variety of Millenary Goods” at the lower right. Its placement may seem strange considering the importance associated with front-page news in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates the evolution in journalism practices and consumption practices. Neither publishers nor readers engaged with newspapers and their content in quite the same way in the eighteenth century that they have in time since then.
Early Americans expected (or at least would not have been surprised) to encounter major news stories nestled within the inner pages of any given issue. Taking into consideration the production of the July 16 edition helps to demonstrate what that was the case. A four-page issue, it resulted from printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. The first and fourth pages, comprised entirely of the masthead and advertisements the printer received well in advance (and most of them already set in type for previous issues), were printed first. Only after they dried were the second and third pages printed on the other side. In this case, those pages included the news content for the issue, including items dated the date before and the day of publication.
To modern eyes, John Mein’s (nearly) full-page advertisement on the front page of a newspaper may seem extraordinary. Its lengthy certainly merited notice in the eighteenth-century, but contemporary readers may not have been especially surprised by its placement. That it appeared on the front page just would not have resonated as being all that significant for readers accustomed to seeing advertising, rather than news, immediately under the masthead.