What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BLANKS of all sorts sold at the Printing Office in Portsmouth.”
Like almost every other colonial printer who published a newspaper, Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, regularly inserted advertisements for their own goods and services. Although they sometimes promoted books they sold at the printing office, including John Dickinson’s popular “LETTERS from a FARMER in PENNSYLVANIA, to the INHABITANTS of the BRITISH COLONIES,” they most often ran short notices that informed readers they sold printed blanks (better known as forms today). Blanks included a variety of common legal and commercial devices, such as bills of sale, indentures, and powers of attorney. They were stock-in-trade for printers throughout the colonies.
I have previously argued that advertisements for blanks in particular (and goods sold by printers more generally) had a dual purpose in colonial newspapers. Selling blanks certainly generated revenues for printers. In that regard, advertisements for blanks appeared for the same reason as advertisements for any other consumer goods and services. Advertisements for blanks, however, also served as filler when the rest of the issue fell short of content to fill the pages.
The October 21, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette makes this especially clear. It was a standard four-page issue created by printing on both sides of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. The first two pages consisted entirely of the masthead and news items, but the final two pages featured a mixture of news and advertising. A short advertisement, just five lines, appeared in the lower right corner of the third page: “BLANKS of most sorts, and a great variety of BOOKS, Pamphlets, &c. sold at the Printing Office, which is kept near the State House, in the Street leading to the Market. And Ferry.—Where Isle Shoals and Newmarket Lottery Tickets are sold.” Another short advertisement, this one only two lines, appeared as the final item on the fourth page, immediately above the colophon. “BLANKS of all sorts sold at the Printing Office in Portsmouth,” it starkly announced. In both cases, the placement at the bottom of the last column on the page indicates that the compositor inserted these advertisements only after including other content, both news and advertising. Advertising their own wares benefitted newspaper printers, but those short notices also played a role in meeting other goals in the publication process.