What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“DOUBLE BEER, fine ALE, TABLE and SMALL BEER.”
Robert Wells, the printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, had too much news and advertising to include all of it in a standard four-page issue on November 20, 1770. Like other printers who found themselves in that position, he distributed a supplement with the surplus content. Both news and advertising appeared in the standard issue, but the supplement consisted entirely of advertisements.
Taking into account the number of advertisements that did not make it into the standard issue, Wells used a smaller sheet for the supplement. That decision led to an unusual format for the supplement. Each page of the standard issue featured four columns, but each page of the supplement had only three columns. Two of those ran from top to bottom of the page, as usual, but Wells printed the final column perpendicular to the others.
Why such an awkward format? It saved time while also maximizing the amount of content Wells could squeeze onto the page. Most of the advertisements ran in previous issues. The type had already been set. Wells wished to use it again rather than investing time in resetting type to fit a page of a different size. The smaller sheet allowed him to insert two columns of the usual width. With the remaining space, he rotated the advertisements and formed columns that ran perpendicular to the others. Wells managed to fit three of these perpendicular columns, but that left a small space at the bottom of the page.
Rather than waste that remaining space by leaving it blank, Wells finally opted to set type for a narrower column. On one side of the page this permitted him to include two more short advertisements, one for beer and ale and the other for candles. On the other side he inserted a notice from the Charleston Library Society calling on members to return books. Engaging with these advertisements required active reading and further manipulation of the page by subscribers.
Wells was simultaneously ingenious and frugal in designing the format for the advertising supplement that accompanied the November 20 edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. His competitor, Charles Crouch, found himself in a similar position when it came to supplements for the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, choosing to eliminate white space between columns in order to make the content fit the page without having to reset the type. Publishing advertisements generated important revenues for newspaper printers, but they were not so lucrative to prevent printers from carefully managing the additional expenses of producing advertising supplements.