What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“The Transpositions in Mr. SKINNER’S Advertisement, in our Paper … were owing to an Error in the Press.”
Something strange happened with S. Sp. Skinner’s advertisement for “the best of RUM” in the New-York Journal near the end of summer in 1773. In the September 2 edition, a manicule directed attention to a note from the printing office: “The Transpositions in Mr. SKINNER’S Advertisement, in our Paper, Number 1597, and 1598, were owing to an Error in the Press.” John Holt, the printer, apparently attempted to make amends with an advertiser after making mistakes in a notice that ran for several months.
Skinner’s advertisement first ran in the December 31, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal and then ran regularly for the next five months. On May 27, 1773, he added a nota bene: “To prevent further Mistakes, desires his Country Customers to take Notice, that there is a Distillery adjoining Mr. Skinner’s Buildings, to the Southward, which is not occupied by him.” Skinner did not want his advertisements to inadvertently send customers to his competitor. The updated advertisement continued through August 5. In the August 12 edition, however, six lines from the original advertisement were mistakenly printed below the nota bene, creating an advertisement that did not make sense. Someone in the printing office noticed the error after that edition, “NUMBER 1597,” went to press … or perhaps Skinner contacted the printer …and attempted to make corrections for the August 19 edition, “NUMBER 1598.” However, that only resulted in lengthening the advertisement by the nota bene a second time at the end. It did not remedy the original error. The compositor managed to make the necessary corrections for the August 26 edition. The following week, Skinner launched a new advertisement, a shorter one, in the September 2 edition. The first time it appeared, it included the note from the printing office, but not in subsequent insertions.
The various iterations of Skinner’s advertisement demonstrate a kind of error that was possible yet rarely occurred as printing offices throughout the colonies published advertisements for multiple weeks or even many months. Typically, compositors set the type for each advertisement once, but then repositioned advertisements in each issue to make all the content fit. That included adding new advertisements and removing others, all done without duplicating labor by setting type for any advertisement more than once. What exactly occurred with Skinner’s advertisement, how the printing office introduced “The Transpositions” on August 12, is not readily apparent, though Holt and others clearly attempted to make corrections, introducing more “Transpositions” in the first attempt on August 19. Most advertisements in colonial newspapers appeared week after week in the same format as their original insertion, printed from the same type. Something unusual, maybe even careless, happened with Skinner’s advertisement, prompting the printer to acknowledge the error, perhaps after receiving complaints from the advertiser about haphazard copy that made the notice border on gibberish.