What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Carries on the BOOK-BINDING and STATIONARY BUSINESS, in all its Branches.”
The term “classified ads” accurately describes newspaper notices published in later periods, but it misrepresents advertising in eighteenth-century newspapers. Printers did not “classify” advertisements in the sense of assigning them to categories and then grouping or organizing them to make it easier for readers to navigate their contents. Instead, advertisements appeared as a hodgepodge fashion, requiring more careful reading to discern their purposes.
Consider, for example, advertisements about enslaved people. Printers could have readily identified four categories or classifications: enslaved people for sale, enslaved people wanted to purchase or to hire, “runaways” who liberated themselves, and captured fugitives seeking freedom held in workhouse and jails. Printers did not cluster such advertisements together on the pages of their newspapers. Consider the July 30, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. It included three advertisements offering rewards for the capture and return of enslaved people who liberated themselves. One ran near the top of the third column on the third page, another at the top of the second column on the last page, and the final one at the bottom of that column. Two “Brought to the WORK-HOUSE” advertisements describing Black men also appeared in that issue, one at the bottom of the third column on the third page and the other in the middle of the third column on the last page. The printer made no effort to classify these advertisements and place them in close proximity.
In some cases, it would have been practically impossible to classify advertisements because advertisers often placed notices with multiple purposes in mind. When Mary Gordon, “Administratrix to the Estate of Mr. James Gordon,” departed South Carolina “for the Benefit of her Health,” she appointed James Taylor to overseer the estate. Taylor placed an advertisement to that effect, calling on anyone with outstanding accounts to settle them. Taylor also used the opportunity to promote his own business, inserting a note that he “carries on the BOOK-BINDING and STATIONARY BUSINESS, in all its Branches, almost opposite the State-House.” While this advertisement could have been considered an estate notice based on its primary purpose, it also aimed to attract customers for a business unrelated to the estate. In that regard, it defied classification.
Although it may seem reasonable to describe advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers as “classified ads,” at least initially, further examination reveals that doing so amounts to a mischaracterization of the contents and organization of those newspapers. It also writes the history of newspaper advertising backwards, grafting later developments onto the early American press.