What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, EXCEEDING good Rhenish WINE, in BOTTLES.”
The proportion of news to advertising varied among eighteenth-century newspapers. Some carried relatively few advertisements, but others, especially those published in the largest port cities, often devoted significant portions of each issue to advertising. Many of those seemed to strike a balance between the two types of content, designating two of the four pages of a standard issue to each. Some, however, received so much advertising that they regularly issued two-page supplements comprised solely of advertising. Such was the case for the Pennsylvania Gazette in the late 1760s. In such instances, advertising accounted for two-thirds of the content delivered to readers, which helps to explain why many printers considered advertisements rather than subscriptions better for generating revenues. Some printers acknowledged this by including “Advertiser” in the title of the newspaper. The masthead of the Boston Post-Boy, for instance, read “The Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser.”
Charles Crouch’s South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal ran more advertising than most other American newspapers in the late 1760s. Indeed, advertising sometimes seemed to crowd out other content, especially news. For instance, consider the four-page standard issue and the two-page supplement distributed on June 28, 1768. Not surprisingly, the supplement consisted entirely of advertisements, except for the masthead. With twelve woodcuts of horses, houses, slaves, and even a mirror on a stand for “WEYMAN’s Looking-Glass Shop” distributed across two pages, this advertising supplement featured far more images to break up the otherwise dense text than appeared in the vast majority of newspaper during the period.
Advertising also comprised most of the standard issue. Except for a proclamation by the lieutenant governor that filled one-third of a column on the third page, the final two pages consisted entirely of advertising. Advertisements filled the entire first column on the first page. In other words, seven of twelve columns in the regular issue (in addition to all six columns in the supplement) delivered advertising to readers. The remainder of the issue was rather short on news. After eliminating poetry and amusing anecdotes, just a little more than two columns featured news and editorials, including “DEFENCE of the AMERICANS,” reprinted “From the Gentleman’s Magazine, for January 1768.”
In this case, Crouch’s publication operated as an advertiser rather than as a newspaper. While it is extremely difficult to determine what readers thought about the advertisements delivered to them in newspapers of all sorts, this balance of news and advertising suggests that at least some readers expected and desired to read advertisements. Perhaps more significantly, the collective decision of advertisers to continue placing notices in publications that provided as much (if not more) advertising as news suggests that advertisers felt confident that readers would indeed peruse their notices. Although they did not engage in market research as we understand it today, anecdotal evidence likely suggested that newspaper advertising achieved some positive return on their investment.