What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Enquire of the printer.”
Printing offices were hubs for circulating information in colonial America, but not all of the information that passed through printing offices appeared in print. Printers obtained and managed far more information than they could publish in newspapers and pamphlets or on broadside and handbills. In addition, some of their customers gave instructions not to disseminate certain information in print. As a result, printers received and wrote letters and engaged in conversations with colonizers who visited their printing offices.
Advertisements that appeared in colonial newspapers made clear that printers possessed much more information than fit on the page or that the advertisers wanted made public. Hugh Gaine, the printer of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, and printers throughout the colonies regularly published “enquire of the printer” advertisements that instructed readers interested in learning more details to contact the printing office. In some cases, but not all, the names of the advertisers did not even appear. Instead, advertisers often entrusted printers with the responsibility of an initial exchange with readers who responded to newspaper notices.
Printers have recently received attention for the role they played in perpetuating the slave trade by serving as brokers for “enquire of the printer” advertisements, but those were not the only instances of printers acting as agents on behalf of advertisers by disseminating additional information that did not appear in print. Consider some of the advertisements that Gaine published in the March 16, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. One offered for sale the “TAN-YARD belonging to the Estate of Mr. John Robbins … with the Utensils thereunto belonging.” It advised readers to “apply to Mr. Abraham Mesier … or the Printer hereof” for particulars. The employment advertisement that ran immediately below it instructed “a young lad” interested in assisting in “taking care of a large store, in a very agreeable part of the country, about 50 miles from this city” to “Enquire of the printer” for more details. Gaine served as a local agent for an advertiser who resided some distance from New York. In another advertisement, a local resident who “FOUND the case of a gold watch” let the owner know that they could claim it by “proving their property, and paying the charges of this advertisement, by applying to the printer.”
Gaine managed the flow of information through his printing office at the Bible and Crown in Hanover Square in New York in the 1770s. He often acted as an agent or broker on behalf of advertisers, supplying additional information that did not appear in newspaper notices to colonizers who heeded the instruction to “enquire of the printer.” From real estate deals to employment opportunities to lost and found items to enslaved people for sale, printers throughout the colonies often assumed responsibilities beyond printing notices in newspapers.
 For printers’ role in perpetuating the slave trade, see Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323.