What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
A brief advertisement in the March 24, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette announced, “GARDEN PEASE. The very best Early Garden Pease to be sold at the GOLDEN EAGLE. (23).” Consisting primarily of information for consumers, this advertisement also featured a notation intended solely for the printer, compositor, and others who labored in John Carter’s “PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespeare’s Head.” The “(23)” at the far right of the final line corresponded to the issue number in which the advertisement first ran, “NUMB. 323” on March 17. Other advertisements included similar notations to the far right on the final line. Robert Nesbitt’s advertisement for a variety of textiles ended with “(22).” James Lovett’s advertisement for bread and flour concluded with “(20).” Another advertisement offering a “Likely, healthy, smart NEGROE BOY” for sale also featured “(20)” on the final line. The issue numbers presumably aided with bookkeeping and alerted compositors when to remove advertisements that had appeared for a specified number of weeks.
Not all advertisements, however, included issue numbers, suggesting that the system was more complicated than simply signaling whether a notice should continue publication. Carter’s own advertisement for printed blanks did not feature an issue number, but that was because the printer could insert notices promoting various aspects of his business at his own discretion. In another notice that lacked an issue number, Stephen Hopkins, John Brown, and John Jenckes called on local “Gentlemen … to become Benefactors” of the college being built in the town. Perhaps it did not carry an issue number because Carter was not concerned about when it commenced or how many times it appeared in the Providence Gazette. Perhaps his contribution consisted of running the fundraising advertisement gratis in his newspaper for as long as the committee desired. Other advertisements, including two for real estate and one about runaway indentured servants, also did not have issue numbers on the final line. The advertisers may not have contracted for a certain number of weeks but instead determined for them to run until they achieved their purpose.
The issue numbers that appeared in some, but not all, advertisements in the Providence Gazette (and other eighteenth-century newspapers) hint at the day-to-day operations in colonial printing offices, but they raise as many questions as they answer. They suggest that printers, compositors, and others followed a system for organizing and keeping track of advertisements, but they do not reveal all of the particulars.