May 17

Who was the subject of an advertisements published in an colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Journal (May 17, 1771).

“RUN away … a Negro Man named ABEL.”

Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, had more content than would fit in a standard four-page issue on May 17, 1771, but not so much to justify a half sheet supplement.  To make room for everything they wished to squeeze into the issue, the Greens resorted to a method frequently deployed by eighteenth-century compositors.  They placed advertisements in the margins.

Doing so required rotating the type so it ran perpendicular to the rest of the contents of the newspaper.  That did not, however, require them to set new type for the advertisements that appeared in the margins.  Instead, they adapted notices that appeared in the previous issue, dividing them into shorter columns.  For instance, Gideon Platt, Jr., placed an advertisement describing Abel, an enslaved man who liberated himself, and offering a reward for his capture and return.  In the May 10 edition, that notice filled fifteen lines in a single column.  In the May 17 edition, on the other hand, the Greens divided Platt’s advertisement into five columns of three lines each in order to make them fit in the left margin on the second page.  Two other advertisements offering rewards for enslaved men who liberated themselves ran in the right margin on the third page.  They accounted for twenty-six lines in the previous issue, but by placing the town and date on the same line as John Treat’s name, the Greens managed to create five columns of five lines each without making significant interventions into type already set.

Rather than diminish the effectiveness of those advertisements, this strategy likely resulted in greater visibility.  The unique format challenged readers to discover what was so noteworthy that it merited inclusion in the margins rather than waiting until the next edition.  The Greens also made those advertisements easily accessible, placing them in the outer margins rather than along the inner fold of the newspaper.  Even as Abel, Dover, and Glasgow, the men described in the advertisements attempted to elude attention, the unique placement of the notices in the margins of the Connecticut Journal encouraged greater scrutiny and familiarity with their descriptions.

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