What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“ALL the STOCK of GOODS.”
Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers ran multiple times. Compositors set the type once and then used it over and over, often moving advertisements around the page in order to make them fit with each other and the news, editorials, and other content that comprised the rest of the issue. This streamlined the production of colonial newspapers since compositors did not have to set type for every item that appeared in every issue.
When I did the initial research to select an advertisement to feature today, I decided on an entire page rather than a single advertisement. Why? The entire page consisted of advertising reprinted in its entirety from a previous issue. While compositors reused individual advertisements in practically every issue, reprinting an entire page was exceptionally unusual. I cannot recall having seen an example of this in all of the eighteenth-century newspapers I have examined over the course of nearly two decades.
Alas, on closer examination I discovered that what I thought had happened did not actually happen. An entire page of advertising was not reprinted, despite initial appearances. Here’s what did happen. Peter Timothy published a new edition of the South-Carolina Gazette on August 16, 1770. That happened to be a Thursday, his usual day for distributing a new issue. It was a standard four-page issue created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. Timothy had too much content to fit everything into those four pages, likely because he had to resort to smaller sheets than usual, so he published four-page Continuation of the South-Carolina Gazette on the same day. Issuing some sort of “supplement,” “postscript”, or “continuation” was standard practice, especially for newspapers published in the largest port cities. Prior to the American Revolution, most newspaper printers produced one issue per week, sometimes accompanied by a supplement. On rare occasions, they distributed a supplement in the middle of the week. Timothy did so in August 1770, printing a Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette on Monday, August 20, four days after the regular issue and its Continuation.
Here’s what I initially thought happened, but eventually discovered did not actually happen. The Supplement published on August 20 included an entire page of advertising reprinted from the Continuation of August 16. When I looked more closely, however, I noticed that the Supplement consisted of three pages. That was extremely unlikely. Eighteenth-century printers almost never released standard editions or supplements with an odd number of pages. Doing so meant blank pages, a waste of precious paper. I originally assumed that the reprinted page had resulted from the compositor using it as filler in order to avoid circulating a blank page when the news that merited a midweek supplement fell short of filling an entire broadsheet. In that case, the reprinted page should brought the number of pages to two or four, but not three. A supplement consisting of three pages, with the reprinted page as the second page, did not make much sense, especially since the sentence from the bottom of the first page continued at the top of the third page.
When I looked more closely at the images of the original page in the Continuation from August 16 and the Supplement from August 20, I noticed that not only did all of the advertisements appear in the same order but the edges of the paper and holes left from binding that had been undone were identical. These were not two separate pages. Instead, they were digital images of the same page!
I recently examined another page of a newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1770 that had been mistakenly included as part of another issue (and another newspaper) in the production of a database of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers. In both cases, the digital archive provided enough clues that I eventually realized something did not match the usual practices of eighteenth-century printers. Especially in this instance, however, the error was not readily apparent. I discovered it only because I decided to work so intensively with a particular page of the South-Carolina Gazette. Others who consulted the same digital resource, even experienced researchers, might not have noticed the discrepancy if they did not happen to be specialists in eighteenth-century print culture, particularly newspaper production.
This is an error that would not have happened when consulting the original documents. The fourth page of the Continuation would have been on the other side of the third page of the Continuation. It would not have been possible to view it as somehow appearing between the first page of the Supplement and the supposed third page of the Supplement (actually the second page on the other side of the sheet for the first page). Digital images of individual pages untether them from the rest of the issue in which they appeared. Digital archives increase access to primary sources. The Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project would not be possible without the several databases of digitized newspapers that remediate eighteenth-century sources for wider dissemination. Yet readers need to be savvy when they consult such databases since digital renditions, such as images of individual pages, become subject to errors not possible when consulting original documents.