What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“His STOCK of GOODS.”
Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, had more content than would fit in the standard issue on April 24, 1771. Wells devoted more than a fifth of the issue to “EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE,” spread over two columns on the front page and continuing on the second page. The remainder of the second page consisted of “AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE,” news drawn primarily from Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, as well as limited coverage of local events. The shipping news from the customs house spilled over, occupying a portion of the first column of the third page. Paid notices constituted the rest of that edition, filling just shy of ten of the sixteen columns. Even as he gave more space to advertising than to news, Wells did not have room for all of the paid notices submitted to his printing office.
To address that problem, Wells did what many other early American printers did in similar circumstances. He distributed an additional sheet that consisted entirely of advertisements, more than two dozen of them. One in four of those advertisements described enslaved men and women for sale or offered rewards for the capture ad return of those who liberated themselves. While digital images of the standard issue and the supplementary pages do not indicate precise dimensions, they do reveal that Wells used a smaller sheet (and fewer columns per page) for the additional notices. Wells depended on revenue generated from advertising to continue publication of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, but he also carefully budgeted how much paper he used in printing advertisements. Rather than distribute an additional half sheet that would have allowed him to print more news reprinted from other newspapers Wells instead selected a smaller sheet with room for the paid notices and nothing else. He carefully balanced the proportion of news and advertising as well as the revenues garnered from adverting and the costs of publishing those notices.