What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Messrs. JOHN SKETCHLEY, & Co.”
Robert Wells, the printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, apparently experienced a disruption in his paper supply in February 1770, perhaps as a result of the duties imposed on imported paper by the Townshend Acts. His newspaper usually featured four columns per page. The February 14 edition did have four columns per page, but the fourth column was narrower, with the contents rotated so that the text ran perpendicular to the other three. Printers and compositors often deployed this strategy when forced to print newspapers on paper of a different size than usual. It allowed them to insert as much content as possible while efficiently using type already set. Notably, advertisements that ran in the previous issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette comprised the entirety of the material rotated to fit on the page for the February 13 edition.
This evidence allows me to confidently state that Wells used broadsheets of two different sizes in February 1770. I cannot make this claim, however, as the result of comparing the actual dimensions of those sheets. The Adverts 250 Project relies primarily on databases of eighteenth-century newspapers that have been digitized to allow for greater access. Indeed, this project would not be possible without the resources made available by Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessible Archives’s South Carolina Newspapers, Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library, and the Maryland State Archives’s Maryland Gazette Collection. Each of these databases allows for significantly enhanced access to the content of eighteenth-century newspapers. In the process, however, they negate some of the material aspects of those newspapers, including any indication of size. Each issue becomes the size of the computer screen or whatever size users make them as they zoom in and out to observe various details.
That means that readers must relay on visual cues to make determinations about the relative size of newspaper pages. This makes it impossible to compare, say, the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to the Connecticut Courant, but it is possible to make comparisons among various issues of a particular newspaper. The mastheads for the February 7 and February 14 editions of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette do not match. Wells or a compositor who worked in his printing office reset the type, adjusting the masthead to fit a smaller broadsheet. In combination with the advertisements rotated to fit a narrower fourth column, this confirms that Wells used a smaller sheet. Careful attention to the format reveals the reason for the unusual appearance of the February 14 issue, something that would have been readily apparent when examining the original copies. Scholars who rely on digital surrogates, however, have to develop strategies for making assessments about the relative sizes of pages and explain why printers and compositors made certain decisions about how to format advertisements and other content.