What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Many other Advertisements for want of Room must be deferred till next Week.”
On April 25, 1771, Richard Draper, the printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, faced the same conundrum that Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General, navigated the previous day. He had more content than would fit in the standard four-page issue of his newspaper. Wells opted to distribute a supplement that consisted entirely of advertising. To conserve resources and minimize expenses, he printed that supplement on a smaller sheet. Draper, on the other hand, inserted a note alerting readers (and advertisers who expected to see their notices in that issue) that “Many other Advertisements for want of Room must be deferred till next Week.”
In the end, Draper did print a supplement. Like Wells, he printed it on a smaller sheet. His supplement, however, did not include any advertising. Instead, it relayed “Fresh London Articles,” news that just arrived in Boston via theThomas from London. The placement of Draper’s notice about the delayed advertisements suggests the sequence of events. Like other printers, het set the type and printed the first and fourth pages first, leaving the second and third pages for later. As a result, the most current news usually appeared on the second page, inside the standard four-page issue, rather than on the front page. For the April 25 edition, the first page included news from “BOSTON, April 19” as well as news from other towns from earlier in April. The fourth page contained advertisements. The second page included news from “BOSTON, April 25,” the same day Draper printed the issue, as well as shipping news from the customs house news from Hartford, an item reprinted from a London newspaper, and advertisements. Like the fourth page, the third page consisted entirely of paid notices, with the addition of the printer’s note about delayed advertisements at the bottom of the final column.
When news from London arrived via the Thomas, however, Draper decided to print a supplement rather than get scooped by his competitors. Most newspapers published before the American Revolution appeared weekly rather than daily, meaning that waiting for the next issue to print breaking news meant a significant delay. Draper managed to take news from London to press first. Four days later, the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy each carried the same news, but in both cases that news ran on the front page as a result of the printers having it in their possession longer. The introductory comments in the Post-Boy explained, “Monday last arrived here the ShipThomas, Capt. Davis, from London, by whom we have Papers to the 1st of March; from which we have the following Advices.”
The Thomas arrived in port on Monday, April 22. Either it took a couple of days for Draper to come into possession of the London newspapers that Davis delivered or the printer decided to create a supplement to call special attention to that news, underscoring that the News-Letter reported it before any competitors. In both scenarios, Draper selected a smaller sheet and devoted the entire supplement to the “freshest advices,” as so many printers described the news in their publications. Advertising, Draper determined, could wait a week. News from London could not. Given that newspaper printers depended on advertising revenue, Draper could not always make the same call. After all, colonists who submitted paid notices were familiar with advertising supplements, a regular feature of many newspapers. In this instance, however, Draper apparently figured that advertisers would be forgiving of the delay, provided it did not continue indefinitely. Like other printers, he sought a balance between news and advertising that would satisfy both subscribers and advertisers.