What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business.”
When Thomas Green and Samuel Green, printers of the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, discovered that that they had more content for the May 17, 1771, edition than space would usually allow, they opted to print several advertisements in the margins. Although that format was not part of every issue of the Connecticut Journal or other eighteenth-century newspapers, printers and compositors did resort to placing advertisements in the margins fairly regularly. On the previous day, for instance, John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, placed an advertisement in the right margin on the third page, running perpendicular to the rest of the text on that page.
A couple of features, however, distinguished Holt’s notice from the advertisements the Greens ran in the margins. First, Holt’s advertisement concerned his own business. “Whereas Philip House, who has been for some Years past the Carrier of this Paper, is now discharged from my Business,” Holt announced, “This is to desire the Customers for the said Paper, to let me know if any of them should fail of getting their Papers, till the present Carrier becomes acquainted with the Places where they are to be left.” Holt placed his notice for the purpose of customer service, maintaining good relationships with subscribers following a change in personnel that potentially had an impact on whether or how quickly they received their newspaper.
Placing such a notice in the margin may have been quite intentional, a means of enhancing its visibility and increasing the likelihood that subscribers noticed it. Unlike the Greens, Holt did distribute an additional half sheet for advertisements that did not fit in the standard issue. He could have placed his own advertisement there, but doing so ran the risk of it getting separated from the rest of the issue. In the margin of the third page, Holt’s notice became part of the standard four-page issue. Its placement in the margin encouraged readers to peruse it in order to discover what kind of information received special treatment.
The format also indicated that Holt intended for his notice to appear in the margin from the start. It ran in two lines that extended the length of the column. The advertisements the Greens placed in the margins of the Connecticut Journal, on the other hand, were divided into several columns of a few lines each. Those advertisements ran in a previous edition. Rather than resetting type, the Greens made them fit in the margins by distributing what originally appeared in a single column across five short columns. They did so out of necessity when they did not have sufficient space in the standard issue of their newspaper, whereas Holt did not transpose his notice from a traditional column to the margin. From its conception, Holt had a different vision for his note to subscribers about disruptions in delivering the New-York Journal.
At a glance, advertisements printed in the margins of eighteenth-century newspapers look like they ended up there simply because compositors ran out of space. Closer examination combined with knowledge of the production of newspapers, however, reveals the range of factors likely influenced decisions to place advertisements in the margins. Different circumstances prompted the Greens to place advertisements in the margins than led Holt to do so.