What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“[The following was paid for as an Advertisement.]”
Newspaper editors selected which articles and letters to print or reprint in their publications, but that did not exclude others, especially advertisers, from shaping the contents and messages disseminated to readers. In the era of the American Revolution, for instance, many advertisers enhanced their notices with political commentary, encouraging consumers to graft politics onto their decisions in the marketplace. Aggrieved husbands regularly published advertisements warning others not to extend credit to wives who had the audacity to resist the patriarchal authority husbands were supposed to exercise in their households. In the process, husbands gave details about marital discord and the misbehavior of their wives. On occasion, some of those wives responded with advertisements of their own, painting less than flattering portraits of abusive or negligent husbands. Other advertisers disputed land titles or pursued personal grudges. Editors temporarily transferred editorial authority to advertisers who paid for space in their newspapers.
That seems to have been the case concerning a poem that ran in the May 15, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette. Many eighteenth-century newspapers featured a poetry corner, often positioned in the upper left corner of the final page, but that was not the case with this poem. Instead, it appeared at the bottom of the last column on the third page. Given the production process for a standard four-page issue, that meant that the poem was the last item the compositor inserted into that issue. Perhaps Samuel Hall, the printer of the Essex Gazette, had second thoughts about including it at all. An editorial note preceded the poem, suggesting that Hall decided that its appearance in his newspaper required some sort of explanation: “[The following was paid for as an Advertisement.]” In other words, Hall did not select it for the edification or amusement of his readers. He might not have even fully understood its purpose or meaning, but a customer paid for the space. The poem very well may have bewildered Hall and most readers. A preamble declared, “The folloing lines were Presented to A lat skull mistres in this town by 4 of her skolers the morning after her mareg.” The misspellings continued throughout the poem, suggesting that the “skull mistres” (school mistress) achieved only partial success with these “skolers” (scholars) who sent tidings following her “mareg” (marriage). The poem was an inside joke not intended for all readers of the Essex Gazette.
Hall could have refused to publish the poem, exercising his prerogative as editor and proprietor of the Essex Gazette. He was not obligated to publish anything submitted to the printing office, even if accompanied by payment to appear as an advertisement. Yet that payment justified temporarily surrendering editorial control to an advertiser. Indeed, Hall abbreviated an advertisement from Nathaniel Sparhawk, Jr., explaining that “[Want of Room obliges us to defer the Particulars till next Week.]” Hall could have given Sparhawk the space devoted to the poem, but instead opted to collect payment and insert the poem with a disclaimer. The four “skolers” then found their ode to their “skull mistres” in the public prints.