What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Great Inconveniences having arisen to the Public, by returning Letters for the Postage.”
The February 11, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette carried a notice from the General Post Office in New York dated January 20. It announced that “the Mail for Falmouth will be made up at this Office on Saturday the 4th of February next.” Although that date had already passed, the notice remained relevant to readers in Providence and throughout the colonies as it further explained that mail intended for the other side of the Atlantic “will continue to be made up in the same Manner upon the first Saturday in every Month, and the Packet Boat ordered to sail with it the next day.” At the command of the Deputy Postmaster General, James Parker communicated other instructions and advice to those who sent letters “to any Part of His Majesty’s Dominions, either in Europe or America” and beyond.
Was this piece an advertisement or a news item? Did John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette receive payment for inserting it in his newspaper? Or did he run it as a public service to his subscribers and other readers? The placement of the notice within the newspaper makes it difficult to determine if Carter classified it as news or advertising. It ran in the final column on the third page, after news items from Savannah, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, Boston, and Providence yet before the prices current from New York. Lines that extended across the column separated the notice from the items above and below, whereas a shorter line that extended across only a portion of the column separated the various news items from other cities and towns. Paid notices comprised almost the entire fourth page, except for the first item, an “Extract [about sows that] may be acceptable to many of our Country Readers.” While the notice from the General Post Office might have appeared in the place of the extract, the latter was many lines longer. The compositor may have made choices about where to place the two items within the newspaper based on their relative lengths. Although advertisements generally appeared after other content in the Providence Gazette, the compositor did sometimes take such liberties for practical purposes.
Whether or not Carter received payment for running the notice concerning the General Post Office, the item served as both news and advertising. Its placement made it a bridge between items that were definitely news and other items that were definitely paid notices. Its contents underscore that advertisements often delivered valuable information to colonial readers. For instance, the Providence Engine Company placed the final notice in the February 11 issue. In it, the Company informed residents of the city to prepare their fire buckets for inspection or else they could “depend on being prosecuted as the Law directs.” Like the notice from the General Post Office, that one blurred the distinction between news and advertising.