What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ravens Duck, German Stripes, Holland Shirting.”
It may appear that I have made an error in posting the image of today’s advertisement, but that is not the case. Rather than rotate it ninety degrees counterclockwise to make it easier to read, I have instead chosen to retain its original orientation from the October 30, 1767, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. A closer look at E. Pierce’s advertisement for “GERMAN Osnaburghs” and other textiles reveals important lessons about both eighteenth-century printing practices and modern remediation projects.
Pierce’s advertisement appeared on the fifth page of the October 30 issue. Although most issues of eighteenth-century newspapers consisted of only four pages (a single broadsheet printed on both sides and folded in half), sometimes printers issued a two-page supplement when they had sufficient news and advertising. Robert Wells took that approach with this issue, though he did not include a masthead that denoted a supplement. Instead, he continued the consecutive page numbering of the issue, indicating that he conceived of the contents of the extra sheet coming after the news and advertising from the standard issue. If the additional sheet had been tucked into the broadsheet to form the third and fourth pages of a six-page issue (which was quite likely, especially considering the lack of a masthead designating a supplemental issue), the page numbers did not match that format. The pages for the broadsheet ran from 213 to 216. The pages on the half sheet were 217 and 218, indicating Wells thought of them as coming after the other content. Otherwise, they would have been pages 215 and 216, the numbers associated with the third and fourth pages of the six-page issue. The numbering suggests that Wells may not have initially intended to issue a six-page issue but instead made that decision only after some of the sheets had been printed.
Yet this does not explain the odd orientation of Pierce’s advertisement. In order to fit as much content as possible on the pages of the additional sheet, Wells rotated several advertisements to print in short columns that ran perpendicular to the three columns that ran from the top to bottom of the page. Given the scarcity of paper, this also resulted in maximum efficiency in using his resources.
That being the case, it would be helpful to know more about the dimensions of the extra sheet. From the digitized images of the newspaper, the extra sheet appears to be a different size than the standard issue. The broadsheet featured four columns of text, while the additional pages had only three and the narrow column of rotated advertisements. When printing the images on each page on office paper (once again remediating them to 8.5 x 11 inches), the type on the extra sheet appears much larger than the type from the broadsheet, though it all would have been the same type of a consistent size throughout the entire issue read by colonists in the eighteenth-century. Both the digitized images and hard copies of those images hide the original dimensions of the pages of the original newspaper. That aspect of the materiality of the text has been lost because the database that includes these images does not provide sufficient metadata about the size of each page. As an historian with significant experience investigating these sorts of discrepancies, I realize that if I want to learn more about the dimensions of the original broadsheet and additional sheet, which in turn will tell me more about newspaper production in colonial South Carolina, that I must consult an original copy of the newspaper.
Digitization of eighteenth-century newspapers is wonderful for delivering content. The process makes historical sources much more widely accessible to scholars and the general public. The Adverts 250 Project is possible because of digitization. Yet digitization, especially digitization without extensive metadata, only produces surrogates for the original sources, sometimes hiding certain aspects (such as the size of the page or type of paper) even while revealing others (the contents). Robert Wells found it necessary to print two extra pages to accompany the October 30, 1767, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. The digitized images, however, obscure elements of the printing process and the actual appearance of the newspapers that subscribers and other readers encountered in the eighteenth century.