What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“(T. b. c.)”
Did printers require advertisers to pay for their notices in advance? They frequently extended credit to subscribers and regularly placed their own notices threatening to sue subscribers who had not paid for months or years, though they rarely seemed to follow through on those threats. Did printers offer such leeway to subscribers because they more strictly enforced policies that advertisers had to pay before seeing their notices in print? After all, advertising had the potential to generate significant revenue, eclipsing subscriptions.
John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, included his policy in the colophon at the bottom of the last page: “ADVERTISEMENTS) of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay) are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings Lawful Money.” Did he enforce his own policy? Some evidence suggests that he did not always do so, especially for advertisements placed by customers who established good relations with the printing office.
Last week, I examined a notation, “(T. b. c.),” that appeared on the final line of George Olney’s advertisement. That advertisement ran for eight weeks, for the first four weeks without the notation and for the final four weeks with the notation. I suggested that “(T. b. c.)” meant “to be continued,” a signal to the compositor to continue inserting the notice until instructed otherwise by the advertiser. How did that correlate with paying for advertisements in advance? I hypothesized that since the notation did not initially appear in Olney’s advertisement that he paid for several weeks and then Carter extended credit for the remainder of the advertisement’s run.
Today, I am testing that theory against two other advertisements that featured the “(T. b. c.)” notation, one for a “compleat assortment of English and India GOODS” placed by Edward Thurber and the other for “DRUGS and MEDICINES” placed by Amos Throop. Thurber’s advertisement ran without the notation for three weeks (November 2, 9, and 16, 1771) and then ran for ten weeks with the notation. In addition, Thurber ran a different advertisement for three weeks in October that did not have the “(T. b. c.)” notation as well as other advertisements earlier in the year that similarly did not include the notation. If Thurber did indeed pay for inserting those advertisements in advance, then Carter very well could have extended credit for his “(T. b. c.)” advertisements.
Throop’s advertisement ran for six weeks in November and December 1771, each time with “(T. b. c.)” on the final line. That deviates from Olney and Thurber first running their advertisements without the notation and then with it. However, Throop had recently inserted another advertisement that ran for three weeks (September 28 and October 5 and 12) without the “(T. b. c.)” notation. He also ran other advertisements earlier in the year, establishing a recent history with Carter. That may have been sufficient for the printer to extend credit when Throop submitted an advertisement to appear for the first time on November 23. It made its final appearance on December 28, perhaps as part of an agreement that credit would not extend into the new year.
Newspapers were important vehicles for disseminating information (via news accounts, letters, editorials, advertisements, and other features) in the era of the American Revolution, so much so that the business practices of printers merit scrutiny. Notices placed by printers make clear that they extended credit to subscribers, but sometimes those notice made more general references to “customers” instead. Those customers may have purchased advertisements, job printing, books, stationery, or a variety of other goods and services commonly available at printing offices. Even though some printers declared that advertisements must pay in advance, it seems likely that they extended credit to some advertisers that they knew well.