March 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

New-York Journal (February 21, 1771).

“To all the Friends of LIBERTY … 61 71.”

Last week the Adverts 250 Project featured this advertisement calling on “all the Friends of LIBERTY” to mark the fifth anniversary of “the Repeal of the oppressive Stamp-Act.”  That initial examination of the advertisement focused on the importance that colonists placed on commemorating the events the culminated in the American Revolution even before the skirmishes took place at Lexington and Concord or the Continental Congress declared independence.  Another aspect of this advertisement, however, caught my attention when I first selected it for the Adverts 250 Project.

The notation on the final line – “61 71” – presented a mystery.  Similar notations appeared on the final lines of most advertisements in the New-York Journal.  Either the printer, John Holt, or the compositor inserted these numbers to indicate the first and last issues in which an advertisement should appear.  They replicated the last two digits of the issue numbers of those newspapers.  For example, the February 28, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal was “NUMB. 1469,” so any advertisements with “69” as the first number in the notation ran for the first time in that issue and any advertisements with “69” as the second number in the notation ran for the last time.  The notations, therefore, were intended for those who worked in the printing office rather than for readers.

I noticed the “61 71” notation for a couple of reasons.  First, it indicated that the advertisement ran for eleven weeks, an odd number in general, made even more odd by the fact that Holt’s pricing structure of “Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after” (listed in the colophon every week) resulted in most advertisements running for four weeks because advertisers incurred the lowest possible cost.  Eleven weeks seemed like a long time to run the advertisement, but it had interesting implications.  Issue 1461 happened to be the first issue of the new year, published on January 3, 1771.  Had those who planned the commemorations of the fifth anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act considered the event worthy of notice so far in advance?

While possible, that did not seem right.  After all, I previously examined every issue of the New-York Journal published in January and February 1771 to identify advertisements to feature on the Adverts 250 Project and advertisements about enslaved people for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  I did not recall seeing this particular advertisement in any of those issues before selecting it from the February 21 edition.  I doubted that I had managed to skip over it in seven consecutive issues of the New-York Journal.  When I examined each edition in search of this particular advertisement, I discovered that it did not appear prior to February 21.  It ran in four consecutive issues, starting on February 21 and concluding on March 14, in issue 1471.  The advertisement appeared in the last edition of the New-York Journal before the commemoration of the repeal and the celebration of “so general and important a Cause.”

It turned out that the advertisement first appeared in issue 1468, not 1461.  The notation contained an error, probably the result of the compositor substituting the last digit of the second issue for the last issue of the first.  Few if any readers of the New-York Journal likely noticed this error.  After all, such notations in any advertisements were not intended for them.  For this historian of advertising and early American newspapers more than two centuries later, however, the notation contained a lot of potential meaning, especially in terms of how extensively those who planned the commemoration of the repeal of the Stamp Act advertised the upcoming fifth anniversary.  Although the advertisement did not as many times or for as long as the notation suggested, it still signaled an important act of remembering on the part of many colonists.

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