What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ran away last Wednesday … an Apprentice Boy.”
The format and placement of Benjamin Mackay’s advertisement suggests that it was a late addition to the new edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Mackay reported that his apprentice, John Bowler, “Ran away last Wednesday” on January 3, 1770. The aggrieved master scrambled to insert an advertisement in the next issue of the colony’s only newspaper, published just two days later on Friday, January 5. Failing to do so would have forced Mackay to wait another week to alert the community by disseminating information about the runaway apprentice in print since the New-Hampshire Gazette, like most other American newspapers published in the early 1770s, appeared only once a week.
Mackay apparently delivered his advertisement to the printing office too late for inclusion in any of the next issue’s twelve columns, three on each of four pages. The compositor had already set the type … but that did not mean that there was not any space for Mackay’s new and urgent advertisement. Compositors sometimes placed short advertisements and news items in the margins, an innovative strategy used only occasionally to include additional content. Mackay’s advertisement ran on the third page of the January 5 edition, running in the bottom margin across all three columns. The unique format possibly attracted the attention of some readers, but it also limited the number of details that Mackay could publish in that particular advertisement. Brevity allowed for speedy publication, but forced Mackay to carefully select which information to circulate to other colonists.
With more time to plan, he remedied that situation in the next edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. He published another advertisement, nearly three times the length, that provided a much more extensive description of Bowler, including his approximate age, notable physical characteristics, and description of his clothing. In addition to offering a reward for apprehending and returning the apprentice, that second advertisement warned others against “entertaining or carrying off” Bowler.
That Mackay published a second advertisement at all suggests that the first was not successful, at least not in the short time between its publication and the compositor preparing the next edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Still, it had no chance of success if it had not appeared in the January 5 issue at all. By resorting to an innovative format for the advertisement, the compositor helped Mackay distribute time-sensitive information in the public prints as quickly as possible.