May 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury (May 23, 1771).

“The Sale of the late Rev’d Dr. Sewall’s Library is postponed.”

The Adverts 250 Project has recently examined examples of printing in the margins of eighteenth-century newspapers, a strategy for increasing the amount of space available when printers had more content than would otherwise fit in an issue.  On May 17, 1771, Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers of the Connecticut Gazette, placed three advertisements describing enslaved men who liberated themselves and offering rewards for their capture and return in the margins of their newspaper.  They did not have enough additional content to justify publishing a supplement, another common means of creating space for material that did not fit in a standard issue.  To make those advertisements fit in the margins, the Greens took type that had already been set in a single column and divided it into several shorter columns.  The previous day, John Holt took a different approach when he inserted an advertisement in the margins of the New-York Journal.   His notice about a new “Carrier of this Paper” appeared for the first time, running the entire length of the rightmost column on the third page rather than separated into multiple shorter columns positioned side by side.  In each case, appearing in the margins may have enhanced the visibility of the advertisements.

Not every printer and compositor resorted to this strategy, but many did so frequently enough that additional content in the margins became a familiar sight to eighteenth-century readers.  Richard Draper, the printer of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, placed two brief items in the margins of the May 23, 1771, edition.  One notice advised, “The Sale of the late Rev’d Dr. Sewall’s Library is postponed.”  The other provided instructions to readers to “See Supplement, for other News and Advertisements.”  A two-page supplement accompanied the standard issue.  Draper likely could have made space there for the notice about the postponed sale, but may have chosen not to do so.  Such a short notice would not have been nearly as visible among the other contents of the supplement as it was in the margin on the third page of the standard issue.  Its placement there also suggests that the information arrived too late to develop a more complete advertisement.  For a standard four-page issue, compositors set type for the third page last, making the notices in the right margin of the third page the last items incorporated into the issue.

Given the amount of advertising in the supplement, all of it previously published in other issues in recent weeks, and the dates listed for the news items, the supplement may have gone to press before the second and third pages of the standard issue.  Draper knew in advance that he would need to distribute a supplement, but he likely did not have much notice that “The Sale of the late Rev’d Dr. Sewall’s Library is postponed.”  As a result, he adopted both strategies for publishing content that did not fit in the standard four-page edition:  issuing a supplement and printing in the margins.  The latter was a clever adaptation prompted by the limits and possibilities of the printing technology available in the eighteenth century. It was a practical solution that had the added benefit of drawing attention to the items that appeared in the margins.

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