January 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (January 21, 1771).


Ornamental printing helped to make the final page of the supplement that accompanied the January 21, 1771, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury more visually interesting than any other portion of that issue.  Rather than use a single line to separate advertisements, the compositor instead selected a variety of decorative type.  Compare, for instance, the line between the advertisement for “SADLERY WARE” and George Ball’s advertisement about his new location to the ornaments that appeared above and below most of the other advertisements.

Eighteenth-century newspapers tended to feature few visual images other than a crest or signet in the masthead and a small number of woodcuts depicting ships, houses, horses, enslaved people, and runaway indentured servants.  Sometimes those woodcuts appeared in great numbers, but most often advertisers deployed them sparingly.  The edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury under consideration here ran only three advertisements with woodcuts, one on the third page and two on the fourth page.  No images appeared on the second page; only the crest in the masthead adorned the first page.  The two-page supplement included six woodcuts, two on the first page and four on the second.  (Three of them can be seen in the detail of that page above.)  With four woodcuts, the last page of the supplement already incorporated greater visual diversity than any other page of the standard issue and the supplement.

Beyond that, the compositor spruced up the page with more than twenty lines of decorative type that separated advertisements.  The third and fourth pages of the standard issue and the first page of the supplement all consisted entirely of advertising, yet none of them received such treatment.  Instead, single lines sequestered advertisements.  What explains the burst of creativity on the final page?  Was it a ploy to attract attention from readers once they discovered no news or editorials, especially those prone to skip over advertisements?  Did more than one compositor set type for that issue and its supplement?  What other factors might have influenced the design decisions that produced a final page so different from the rest of the issue?  The format of these advertisements raises interesting questions without clear answers.

December 16

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

New-York Journal (December 13, 1770).

“54 57.”

“55 58.”

The numbers at the end of bookseller Garret Noel’s advertisement in the December 13, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal would have been a familiar sight to readers, even if they did not take the time to grasp their significance.  After all, they were not intended for readers, but instead for the compositor.  A brief notation, in this case “55 58,” alerted the compositor to the first and last issues in which an advertisement was supposed to appear.  The December 13 edition was “NUMB. 1458,” according to the masthead, thus the final issue for this particular advertisement.  It first ran three weeks earlier in “NUMB. 1455.”

This advertisement, however, had another notation with two other numbers, “54 57,” associated with it.  They appeared midway through the advertisement, a rather unusual situation.  This resulted from Noel placing two separate advertisements.  The first listed books “imported in the Britannia, Capt. Miller.”  It first ran in “NUMB. 1454” on November 15.  The following week, Noel placed another advertisement for books “IMPORTED, In the Albany, Capt. Richards.”  Rather than run it as a separate advertisement, the compositor appended it to Noel’s other notice.  In so doing, the compositor for the New-York Journal made a different decision than the compositor for the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.  In the latter publication, Noel’s advertisements ran as separate items on different pages.

Noel derived advantages from both methods.  In the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, readers encountered his advertisements multiple times.  This increased visibility may have made Noel and his books more memorable for prospective customers.  On the other hand, combining the advertisements into a single notice in the New-York Journalcreated a lengthy notice that testified to the range of choices available at Noel’s shop.  The amount of spaced it occupied on the page may have helped draw attention as well.  Furthermore, it seems likely that Noel may have enjoyed a free insertion of his first advertisement for an additional week.  It should have been discontinued with “NUMB. 1457” on December 6, but it appears the compositor overlooked the notation in the middle of the advertisement.  No portion of the advertisement appeared in “NUMB. 1459” on December 20.  The compositor heeded the notation at the end, the usual position, and removed the entire advertisement.

The notations at the end of many advertisements help to tell stories about business practices and the production of newspapers in the eighteenth century.  In this case, the unusual configuration of multiple notations in a single advertisement in the New-York Journal demonstrates that even though the advertiser wrote the copy the compositor exercised discretion concerning format.  The single notice in the New-York Journal had quite a different format compared to the notices in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury.

April 30

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 30 - 4:30:1770 Boston Evening-Post Supplement
Supplement to the Boston Evening-Post (April 30, 1770).

“New Philadelphia FLOUR.”

“New Philadelphia FLOUR.”

John Head’s advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette demonstrate the relationship between advertisers and compositors in the eighteenth century.  Advertisers composed the copy for their notices.  Compositors generally designed the format, though advertisers occasionally collaborated on specific elements they wanted incorporated into their advertisements.  For his advertisements, Head submitted the copy and almost certainly specified that he wished for the list of goods to appear in columns, but the compositors for the Evening-Post and the Gazette made their own decisions about the font size, capitalization, italics, and the layout of the columns.

Apr 30 - 4:30:1770 Boston-Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (April 30, 1770).

At a glance, the two advertisements appear remarkably similar, but on closer examination it becomes clear that even though they featured nearly identical copy they also had significant variations in design.  Only two discrepancies in copy distinguish the advertisements from each other, one of them the result of a design decision made by a compositor.  In the first discrepancy, the Gazette version lists “Jamaica Spirit” among Head’s inventory; the Evening-Post version has “Jamaica Fish” instead.  Either Head miscopied from one to the other or a compositor made an error.  For the second discrepancy, the compositor for the Gazette made a decision to list “Best green Coffee” on the line after “Cocoa,” reversing the order of the items in order to accommodate an oversized “N” in “NEW Rice” that adorned the first item listed.  That “N” made it impossible to fit “Best green Coffee” on the second line, but the much shorter “Cocoa” fit just fine.

Those lists of merchandise provide perhaps the most visible evidence of the different decisions made by the compositors.  The Evening-Post version featured only two columns, but the Gazette version had three.  Other differences in capitalization and italics appeared throughout the advertisements.  Consider just the first three lines: “New Philadelphia FLOUR, / To be Sold by / John Head” in the Evening-Post and “New Philadelphia FLOUR, / TO BE SOLD BY / John Head” in the Gazette.  The first used few capitals and no italics, but the second incorporated italics and many more capitals.  The short paragraph at the end of the advertisement also received different treatment from the compositors.  The version in the Evening-Post appeared mostly in italics, introduced with a manicule.  The version in the Gazette did not appear in italics.  An assortment of lesser-used type called attention to it.

In an era without professional advertising agencies, Head assumed responsibility for generating the copy for his advertisement.  He also gave directions concerning an element of its layout, organizing the list of merchandise into columns, but the printing office, the compositor in particular, was primarily responsible for graphic design.  Like Head, other advertisers ran notices in multiple newspapers in colonial America.  Comparing copy and format in those other advertisements further confirms the relationship between advertisers and compositors.

January 19

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Jan 19 - 1:19:1770 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (January 19, 1770).

“TO BE SOLD AT William Scott’s Store.”

When it came to disseminating his advertisements widely, William Scott was more industrious than most merchants, shopkeepers, and others who placed newspaper notices promoting consumer goods. His advertisements for a variety of textiles available “Wholesale & Retail” at his store on the “North-side of Faneuil-Hall” ran in the January 19, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, shortly after appearing in the Essex Gazette (published in Salem, Massachusetts) and four out of five of Boston’s newspapers. His advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette listed “Irish LINNENS,” “Diaper and Damask Table Cloths,” “Cambricks,” “Lawns,” and all of the other fabrics enumerated in the other newspapers, lacking only a note about “a great Variety of English, Irish and Scotch Goods, by Retail” that concluded those advertisements.

That may have been the result of the advertisement’s position on the page in the New-Hampshire Gazette. It appeared in the lower right corner, the last item on the third page. The compositor had sufficient space to include the main body of the advertisement while still achieving columns of equal length, but not the additional note. Using a smaller font for Scott’s name would have yielded the necessary space to print the entire advertisement, but the compositor did not make the choice. Comparing Scott’s notices as they appeared in all six newspapers reveals that compositors exercised considerable discretion when it came to the format of advertisements. That discretion likely even extended to occasional minor adjustments to the copy. Scott generated the copy for his advertisements and submitted it to several printing offices, but compositors adopted very different approaches to how that copy appeared on the page when it came to font sizes, capitalization, italics, line breaks, and other typographical elements. Variations in spelling (“LINNENS” or “Linens”) and fractions (“Three quarter” and “3-4”) may have originated with the advertiser or the compositor.

Scott intended to engage as many prospective customers as possible by inserting the same advertisement in six newspapers published in three port cities in New England. His marketing efforts reveal testify to a division of labor in the production of advertisements for consumer goods. Advertisers generally took responsibility for composing copy, while compositors who worked in printing offices designed the format of advertisements in eighteenth-century America.

August 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 3 - 8:3:1769 New-York Journal
Supplement to the New-York Journal (August 3, 1769).


Like many other eighteenth-century printers, John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, inserted numbers at the end of advertisements. These numbers were not intended for readers but instead for those who worked in the printing office. They indicated how long an advertisement should run. For instance, an advertisement announcing that the brigantine Rebekah would sail for Jamaica appeared in the supplement that accompanied the August 3, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal. The compositor inserted the numbers 85 and 88 on the final line, 85 indicating that the advertisement first ran in issue 1385 on July 20 and 88 indicating that it would make its final appearance in issue 1388 on August 10. After that, the compositor would remove it. Similarly, Jonathan Hampton’s advertisement featuring a woodcut that depicted a Windsor chair also included 85 and 88 on the final line, though an earlier iteration included the numbers 63 and 72 instead. Hampton had inserted the advertisement for ten weeks earlier in the year, apparently determined it had been worth the investment, and then inserted it again for a shorter run.

Other advertisements, however, included a single number and a dash. Samuel Francis (better known today as Samuel Fraunces) ran an advertisement that concluded with “79–“ instead of two numbers. Similarly, Jarvis Roebuck had “62–“ on the final line of his advertisement. In each case, the number indicated the issue that the advertisement first appeared: issue 1362 on February 2 for Jarvis and issue 1379 on June 8 (the same date at that opened the advertisement) for Francis. What did the dash mean? How did the compositor interpret it when deciding which items belonged in an issue and which should be removed?

The publication history of these two advertisements reveals that the dash did not indicate that an advertisement should run continuously. Francis’s advertisement ran for five consecutive issues (June 8, 15, 22, and 22 and July 6) before appearing sporadically in six more issues (July 20, August 3 and 24, September 7, and October 12 and 26). Roebuck’s advertisement ran sporadically from the start, appearing on February 2 and 9, March 2 and 30, April 13 and 27, May 25, June 1, 8, and 29, July 27, August 3, 24, and 31, September 14, and October 12. Seemingly no particular plan corresponds to the publication schedule for the sixteen insertions of Roebuck’s notice over the course of nine months.

Perhaps the dash indicated that the compositor had carte blanche to insert the advertisement when necessary to complete a page. These two advertisements were the final items in the August 3 supplement, though they did not always appear at the end of an issue or supplement. Moderate in length, they may have been convenient filler when the compositor estimated that an issue or supplement ran short of other content. Paired numbers, like “85 88,” streamlined bookkeeping and production of the New-York Journal, but this arrangement for continued yet sporadic insertions required careful attention to bookkeeping. The printer or another employee in the printing office would have had to peruse each issue to see which advertisements with dashes appeared and then update the ledger accordingly.

What role did advertisers play in this process? Could they instruct the printing office to insert an advertisement on a week-by-week basis? If compositors made decisions about including advertisements, did advertisers pay for every insertion? Did advertisers receive any sort of discount for this arrangement? Did advertisements every run after advertisers no longer wished for them to appear? It seems unlikely that Francis would have been enthused about an advertisement promoting the summer entertainments at Vauxhall Gardens to appear in the New-York Journal in late October.

Some of the numbers compositors inserted at the end of advertisements clearly indicated their purpose in the operation of a printing office and the production of colonial newspapers. Other notations, however, only hinted at their purpose and now raise tantalizing questions about how printers, compositors, advertisers, and others used them. The dash at the end of some advertisements certainly served some purpose; otherwise compositors would not have taken the time to include such notation. A more systematic survey of advertisements combined with careful examination of printers’ ledgers may reveal some of the practices that printers found efficient and effective in running their shops in the eighteenth century.

December 30

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

New-Hampshire Gazette (December 30, 1768).


Colonial printers rarely listed their advertising fees in their newspapers. Those that did usually set rates that took into account a variety of factors, including the length of an advertisement, its duration, and the time and labor involved in setting type. Most printers specified that an advertisement would run for three or four weeks for an initial fee and then accrue additional fees with each subsequent insertion. The cost of those insertions made clear that the initial fee took into account that a compositor had to set the type for an advertisement’s first appearance but not afterward. Printers also stated that the basic fees were adjustable in that they were proportional to the length of each advertisement. Shorter advertisements cost less, but longer advertisements more. The basic fees provided a starting point for the calculations.

Other content in colonial newspapers – news, editorials, prices current, shipping news, and poetry and other entertainment pieces – changed from issue to issue. Type for each item had to be set with each new edition. Advertisements, however, continued from week to week without change. Their placement on the page often shifted as compositors eliminated notices that had expired, added others, and arranged the contents in an order that yielded columns of the same length, but that did not require (setting type for each advertisement. In that regard, reprinting advertisements for second and subsequent weeks reduced the time and labor required for producing a portion of the newspaper.

When preparing the final edition for 1768, reprinting advertisements that previously appeared in previous weeks saved the compositor for the New-Hampshire Gazette considerable time and labor. The last page consisted entirely of advertisements and a colophon. That page exactly replicated the last page of the previous issue: all of the same advertisements in the same order, an extraordinary repetition even taking into account that individual advertisements ran for multiple weeks.

Like most other colonial newspapers, a standard issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette consisted of only four pages, created by printing on both sides of a broadsheet and folding it in half. The page of advertising that did not change from one issue to the next represented one-quarter of the contents of the December 30 edition. Producing copies one-by-one on a hand-operated press still required the same amount of time and energy. When it came to content, however, reprinting advertisements streamlined the production process. The printing office at the New-Hampshire Gazette would have still been a bustling place, but the compositor experienced a brief respite when it came to preparing the last page for the final edition of 1768.

September 24

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Sep 24 - 9:24:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 24, 1768).

Want of Room has obliged us to omit some Advertisements, and sundry Articles of European Intelligence, to which a due Regard will be paid in our next.”

The compositor who set type for the Providence Gazette inserted a series of instructions to aid readers in navigating the September 24, 1768, edition. Like all other newspapers published in the American colonies in the 1760s, a standard issue of the Providence Gazette consisted of four pages distributed once a week. This required a single broadsheet, folded in half. Some newspapers in largest port cities did regularly circulate an additional two-page supplement printed on a half or quarter sheet tucked inside the standard issue but often numbered sequentially as the fifth and sixth pages. The majority of newspapers, however, issued supplements, postscripts, and extraordinaries only rarely.

Printers and compositors produced four-page issues by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet. The second and third pages were printed side-by-side on one side. In the final issue, they appeared next to each other across the center fold. The first and fourth pages were printed on the other side of the sheet, with the fourth page on the left and the first page on the right. This put each page in the proper position once both sides had been printed and the broadsheet folded in half.

The instructions the compositor inserted in the September 24, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette make the order for setting the type clear, though not necessarily the order for printing the two sides of the broadsheet. Except for the masthead, the “Commission of the Board of Commissioners for this Continent, now held at Castle-William” in Boston harbor occupied the entire first page. The final line of the third column instructed readers to “[See the last Page.]” The “Commission” continued there, filling the entire page except for the colophon at the bottom. Again, the final line of the third column gave instructions: “[For the Remainder, turn to the second Page.]” The “Commission” continued there, in the middle of a word, and concluded after approximately one-quarter of a column. Other news from Boston rounded out the second page and a portion of the third page. The editors selected one column of local news. Only five advertisements appeared in the issue, confined to the bottom of the second and the entire third column on the third page. A short note from the printers followed the paid notices: “Want of Room has obliged us to omit some Advertisements, and sundry Articles of European Intelligence, to which a due Regard will be paid in our next.” The printers opted not to issue a supplement but instead held off on publishing additional content for a week.

These various instructions make it clear that the compositor set the type for the first and fourth pages first and only after that for the second and third pages. They also indicate that reading the issue start to finish required subscribers to jump around the pages, starting with the first, then the fourth, and finally the second and third. The technologies of printing led to readers experiencing the material text in ways that seem unfamiliar and counterintuitive to modern readers.

August 29

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Aug 29 - 8:29:1768 New-York Gazette Weekly Mercury
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (August 29, 1768).

“Many other Articles too tedious to mention.”

In a brief notice in the August 29, 1768, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, William Moor advertised “a great Number of School Books” as well as “A large Assortment of Bibles, Testaments, Psalm Books, Psalters and Primers, with a great Variety of other Books on Law, Physick, and Divinity.” In addition, he stocked “a large Assortment of Saddles, Carpets, and many other Articles too tedious to mention.”

That Moor designated some of his merchandise “too tedious to mention” rather than publishing an extensive list of goods (an alternate strategy adopted by several other retailers whose advertisements appeared on the same page) had the unintended effect of influencing the placement of his advertisement in that issue. Moor’s entire notice extended only eight lines, making it short enough that the compositor could divide it into columns of four lines each, both printed perpendicular to the rest of the content on the page.

Compositors sometimes deployed this strategy as a means of squeezing more items, especially paid advertisements, into current issues rather then delay publication until the following week. Even though a two-page supplement devoted entirely to advertising accompanied this particular issue, it did not offer space to insert all of the advertising. Not so much remained to justify adding an additional page to the supplement. Instead, the compositor looked to the margins.

The standard issue consisted of four pages, each with three columns. The compositor converted the outer margin, away from the fold, of the first, third, and fourth pages into advertising space by dividing short notices into multiple columns of no more than four lines each and then positioning them perpendicular to the columns that ran the length of the page. In addition to Moor’s advertisement on the fourth page, a sixteen-line advertisement for a runaway servant appeared on the first page, divided into four columns of four lines each and positioned along the outer margin to the right of the masthead and essay that comprised the rest of the page. A bankruptcy notice, eight lines divided into four columns, ran in the outer margin of the third page. A short estate notice divided into two columns ran alongside Moor’s advertisement on the fourth page.

Moor likely had no choice concerning the unusual placement of his advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. All the same, the compositor’s efforts to find more space for paid notices may have served Moor’s interests by producing the unconventional format since readers may have been especially curious to see what sorts of items had been consigned to the margins. Rather than becoming marginal, the advertisements in the margins may have evoked additional notice.

March 4

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 4 - 3:4:1768 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (March 4, 1768).


An advertisement seeking “LIVE WILD TURKIES” occupied a strange place on the sixth and final page of the March 4, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. The text was rotated and printed near the bottom of the page, nestled between another advertisement and the colophon that advised readers that the newspaper had been “Printed by ROBERT WELLS, at the Old Printing-House, Bookseller’s and Stationer’s Shop on the BAY.” Indeed, this advertisement was one of several that gave the page a strange appearance, though one not completely uncommon in eighteenth-century newspapers. In an attempt to squeeze as much content as possible onto the fifth and sixth pages, two sides of a single sheet, the compositor had rotated several advertisements already set in type. This created a fourth column of text perpendicular to the other three columns on the page.

Compositors deployed this trick when using paper that deviated from the usual size for their newspapers. Although the digitized images of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette are not supplemented with metadata that indicates the measurements of each page, it is possible to reach some reasonable conclusions through close examination of the contents. First, this newspaper usually ran four columns per page. That was the case for the first four pages of the March 4 issue, all of which would have been printed on a single sheet and folded in half to yield four distinct pages. The fifth and sixth pages, however, featured only three columns plus the narrow column of rotated text. Viewed on a screen as part of a database of digitized images of eighteenth-century newspapers, the fourth page and the sixth page appear the same size. When printing those images, both take on the standard size of a sheet of office paper. Further examination of the contents, however, suggests that the originals were different sizes. Upon comparing several advertisements on the fifth and sixth pages of the March 4 issue to their appearance in previous issues, it seems that the compositor used type that had already been set when preparing the new pages. The sheet must have been smaller, wide enough for only three columns with just enough space to rotate some of the short advertisements and squeeze them into an extra narrow column at the edge of the page. Not wanting to waste any space, the compositor did have to set two advertisements, each approximately half as wide as the standard column. The advertisement concerning “LIVE WILD TURKIES” thus found a spot near the bottom of the sixth page. Another advertisement of a similar size mirrored its location on the other side of the sheet, that one announcing “To be Let, A Genteel LODGING ROOM and a very good Cellar, by WILLIAM GOWDEY.”

The last two pages of the March 4 issue may appear unusual to twenty-first century eyes, but eighteenth-century readers would have been familiar with this strategy. The printer and compositor of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette selected a sheet just large enough to contain the news and advertisements for publication that week. At a time when imported paper was taxed under the Townshend Act, this may have been an especially important method of lowering the costs of publication.

Mar 4 - South-Carolina and American General Gazette Page 6
Final page of the March 4, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.