March 20

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

Boston-Gazette (March 18, 1771).

“To be Sold by John Hunt, By Wholesale and Retail, at the very lowest Rates.”

Some colonial printers relegated advertising to the final pages of their newspapers, but others did not adopt that practice.  Instead, many distributed advertisements throughout their publications, even placing some alongside news accounts and editorials on the front page.  Benjamin Edes and John Gill took that approach in the March 18, 1771, edition of the Boston-Gazette.  Like other newspapers of the era, the Boston-Gazette consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  Advertising appeared on every page.

Edes and Gill commenced that issue with a lengthy letter submitted by a reader and an editorial reprinted from the November 30, 1770, edition of London’s Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser.  They completed the page with three advertisements at the bottom of the last column, two for consumer goods and another from a wet nurse offering her services.  The other pages included even more advertising.  The second included nearly an entire column and the third and fourth were divided almost evenly between advertising and other content selected by the printers.  Overall, about a third of the issue consisted of paid notices.

In spreading the advertisements throughout the issue, Edes and Gill may have increased the likelihood that readers took note of them.  If the advertisements had been concentrated on the final page, readers could have chosen to skip over them entirely.  When advertisements appeared alongside other items, however, readers might have taken note of them even as they focused on news, letters, and editorials.  The printers did not, however, further enhance that strategy for drawing attention to advertisements by interspersing them with other content.  On each page, only after items selected by the printers appeared did advertisements follow, except for a short advertisement for “Choice Fresh Lemons” that completed the first column on the third page.

The printers also distributed a two-page supplement devoted entirely to advertising that accompanied the March 18 edition of the Boston-Gazette.  Even though those two pages had a specific purpose, Edes and Gill did not divide up the pages of the standard issue, designating some for news and others for advertising.  When John Hunt submitted the copy for his advertisement about housewares, cutlery, and hardware available at his shop, he had little say over where it would appear in the newspaper.  It turned out that it ran on the front page, next to and immediately below the news.  Although the other advertisements in the March 18 edition did not occupy the same choice location, most did benefit from appearing alongside the news.  That made it difficult for readers to consume only the news but not the advertising.

October 28

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

South-Carolina Gazette (October 25, 1770).

“New Advertisements.”

What qualified as front page news in eighteenth-century American newspapers?  Even asking that question reveals a difference between how newspapers organized their content then compared to what became standard practice in the nineteenth century and later.  Today, most readers associate massive headlines and the most significant stories with the front page, but that was not the approach to delivering the news in the eighteenth century.

In general, news items did not include headlines that summarized their contents.  They did have datelines, such as “BOSTON, AUGUST 27,” that indicated the source of the news, yet those datelines did not necessarily mean that they covered events from a particular place, only that the printer received or reprinted news previously reported there.  For instance, a dateline might say “New York” and deliver news from London elsewhere in England that was first reported in newspapers published in New York.  Similarly, a dateline for “Boston” could lead news items that included events from other towns in New England.  Printers sometimes listed their sources, such as another newspaper or a letter, but not always.  Along with the dateline for “BOSTON, AUGUST 27” in the October 25, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, printer Peter Timothy stated that the following news came from “An extract of a letter from a gentleman of distinction in Connecticut, dated August 14, 1770.”  The news under that dateline consisted of a single story, but printers often grouped together many different stories without distinguishing them with their own datelines.  Without headlines and other visual markers to aid them in understanding how the contents were organized, subscribers and others had to read closely as they navigated newspapers.

The placement of advertisements testifies to another stark difference between eighteenth-century newspapers and those published today.  Modern readers are accustomed to news appearing on the front page, especially above the fold.  Eighteenth-century printers and readers, however, did not associate the front page with the most significant news.  Instead, advertising often appeared on the front page.  On October 25, 1770, the front page of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter consisted of three columns, the first two devoted to news and the final one containing several advertisements.  The edition of the South-Carolina Gazette published the same day commenced with a column of “New Advertisements” as the first item on the first page.  The other two columns delivered news.  Most newspapers consisted of only four pages created by printing two on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half.  The first and fourth pages, printed simultaneously, often contained advertisements received well in advance, while the second and third pages, also printed simultaneously featured the latest news that had just arrived via newspapers from other towns, letters, and other means.  Colonists looking for what modern readers would consider front page news understood that they often would not encounter those stories until they opened their newspapers to the second page.

Then and now, newspapers delivered news and advertising, the latter providing much of the revenue necessary for the former.  The appearance and organization of newspapers, however, has changed over time.  Modern readers are accustomed to newspapers overflowing with advertising, but not advertising on the front page, a space now reserved for the lead stories.  Eighteenth-century readers, on the other hand, often saw commercial messages and other sorts of paid notices as soon as they began perusing the front page.

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 25, 1770).