What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Among the many primary sources that I incorporate into my classes about early American history, eighteenth-century newspapers are among my favorites. Despite the decline of print editions of newspapers in the internet age, students still have expectations about what a newspaper looks like and how it should be organized. Working with eighteenth-century newspapers gives us many opportunities to identify change over time.
We consult digitized copies of newspapers via several databases. Students quickly discover that colonial printers distributed new editions only once a week, not daily. Printers chose which day of the week to publish their own newspapers, most of them opting for Mondays or Thursdays, but none of them published newspapers on Sundays. The Sunday edition celebrated today did not exist in early America.
Moving beyond the calendar of publication to the newspapers themselves, students learn that the standard issue for most newspapers consisted of only four pages produced by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. On occasion, some printers also distributed supplements or extraordinaries, but for the most part subscribers received only four pages of news and other content each week.
Upon examining the contents, students express surprise over the organization and lack of headlines for most news articles. In modern newspapers, advertisements usually do not appear on the front page, but that was common practice in eighteenth-century newspapers. Consider the February 28 edition of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy. Immediately below the masthead, a header for “Advertisements” announced what sort of content appeared in that column.
The header itself was relatively unique; running advertisements on the first page was not. Indeed, some printers filled the entire front page with advertising. The production process played a role in that decision. In order to create a four-page issue out of a single broadsheet, printers first printed the front and back pages on one side of the sheet. After the ink dried, they printed the second and third pages on the other side of the sheet. They saved the second and third pages for the most current news. That meant they first printed advertisements, many of them with type already set because they ran in previous issues.
In the eighteenth century, readers knew to open their newspapers to the second and third pages to find the most current news. Doing so seems quite foreign and counterintuitive to students accustomed to the appearance and organization of print editions of newspapers in the twenty-first century. Discovering this on their own provides valuable opportunities to critically engage with primary sources, examining not only their format but also the production process and how readers engaged with newspapers as material texts.