What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Hatts of all kinds.”
John Beck, a hatter, placed advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette on multiple occasions during the summer of 1771. Although the copy remained consistent, the format varied, an unusual situation when it came to early American advertising. Printers and compositors usually conserved time and effort by setting type for advertisements just once and then running them in that format for as long as advertisers wished for them to continue to appear. For some reason, however, that was not the case with Beck’s advertisement.
When the advertisement appeared in the July 5 edition, it occupied only three lines. In its entirety, it informed readers of “HATTS of all Kinds, made and Sold by JOHN BECK, as usual, at the Sign of the HATT and BEVER, in Queen Street, Portsmouth.” The advertisement did not run again until July 26. It did not appear in the same format. The copy remained the same, including the variations in spelling, but the new version made use of larger fonts, distributed the copy across five lines that occupied twice as much space as the previous iteration, and discontinued the use of italics. The revised version then ran several times in August.
Who made decisions about changing the format of the advertisement, someone in the printing office or the advertiser? Unfortunately, that question is impossible to answer from the sources available. Certain aspects of the advertisements allow for reasonable conjectures about a portion of the process, but not all the details. The identical copy, for instance, testifies to an attribute seen in other advertisements placed in multiple newspapers. Advertisers usually exercised control over the copy. Advertisements with identical copy placed in multiple newspapers also demonstrate that compositors usually made decisions about format, including font size and the use of capitals and italics. This instance, however, concerns an advertisement placed multiple times in one newspaper, not an advertisement placed in multiple newspapers. It presents the possibility that Beck, dissatisfied with the original advertisement, negotiated for a different format. Yet that may not have been the case at all. Alternately, the compositor may have inadvertently broken down the type after Beck’s advertisement ran the first time and then someone had to set it again, making new choices in the process. Or something else altogether may have occurred. Something unusual happened, deviating from the standard practices for producing newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century. This raises questions about the roles of the advertiser and the compositor, the influence of each, but no definitive answers that might better illuminate the evolution of business practices associated with advertising in early America.