What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Lately imported from LONDON and BRISTOL, and to be Sold, on the cheapest Terms, by Daniel Benezet.”
Today, newspapers run the most consequential stories, the biggest news, on the front page. Headlines provide brief summaries, prompting readers to learn more. Images often accompany the articles. That format has grown so familiar that it may seem strange to imagine other ways of organizing the content and delivering the news, yet the appearance of the modern newspaper has evolved significantly. In the eighteenth century, printers made other choices about where content appeared in their newspapers.
Consider, for example, the September 9, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Like other newspapers published throughout the colonies, it consisted of only four pages. William Goddard printed two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folded it in half before distributing it to subscribers. The first item on the first page, immediately below the masthead, was an extensive advertisement placed by Daniel Benezet to promote an assortment of goods he “Lately imported from LONDON and BRISTOL.” The shopkeeper enumerated hundreds of items, his advertisement filling the entire first column and overflowing into the second. Three shorter advertisements completed that column, with news first appearing in the final column. The first page included updates received from Warsaw and London. News from London continued on the second page, supplemented with news from Salem, Boston, and New York on the third page. Goddard inserted some local news from Philadelphia, including the shipping news from the customs house, on the third page. Half of that page as well as the entire final page consisted of advertising. Readers seeking news spent most of the time perusing the inside pages; as they held their newspapers aloft, observers glimpsed the masthead and a lot of advertising and only a little bit of news.
Overall, slightly less than six of the twelve columns in that issue contained news. Paid notices occupied the rest of the space in the newspaper, underscoring that publications like the Pennsylvania Chronicle, or, noting its full title, the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser were delivery mechanisms for advertising in eighteenth century America. Printers organized newspapers differently in the eighteenth century than publishers do today. In turn, readers approached them with different strategies for extracting the information they wanted or needed.