What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons … at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.”
Following the custom of the time, the May 20, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette arranged news accounts according to geography. News from London (dated April 2), far away, came first, followed by news from other colonies. The printers also selected updates from Newport (dated May 13) and Portsmouth (dated May 17), in that order, getting closer to their own city before inserting news from Boston (dated May 20). The local news included a curious item: “A large and elegant Assortment of Chinces, Callicoes, printed Cottons, Clouting Diapers, Dowlasses, Huckabuck, Irish Linnens, Silk and Linnen Handkerchiefs, may be had very cheap at the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane, if apply’d for this Day.” Rather than news, it read like an advertisement that belonged elsewhere in the newspaper.
The same item appeared among the news dated “BOSTON, May 20” in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and in the Boston Evening-Post. All three newspapers printed in Boston on that day included what otherwise looked like an advertisement among the local news. In each case, the printers reprinted some items from a supplement to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter published on May 16. They also inserted new items, varying the order. In other words, a compositor did not set type from start to finish for content that first appeared elsewhere. The printers of each newspaper made decisions about which items to include and in which order. They all decided to include this advertisement among the local news.
Why? Was it a favor for Joseph Russell, one of the proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy? Russell was also a successful auctioneer who regularly advertised in several newspapers rather than restricting his marketing efforts to his own publication. For instance, he placed an advertisement for an upcoming auction in the May 20 edition of the Boston Evening-Post. He gave the usual location, “the Auction-Room in Queen-street” rather than “the House of Mr. Russell in Long-Lane.” Something distinguished the sale of the “large and elegant Assortment” of textiles as different, meriting a one-day-only sale at Russell’s home rather than the auction house … and its unique placement among news items instead of alongside other advertisements.
As a partner in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Russell certainly exercised some influence in the placement of his advertisements, even though John Green oversaw the day-to-day operations of the newspaper. Deciding to experiment with an unusual placement for his notice, Russell may have convinced other printers to give his advertisement a privileged place in their publications as well. In his History of Printing in America (1810), Isaiah Thomas described Russell as “full of life,” asserting that “[f]ew men had more friends, or were more esteemed. In all companies he rendered himself agreeable.” Perhaps this vivacious auctioneer convinced his partner and several other printers to slip an advertisement into a place that such notices did not customarily appear in the 1770s.
 Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810; New York: Weathervane Books, 1970), 140.