May 19

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

New-York Journal (May 16, 1771).

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.

August 12

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

Aug 12 - 8:12:1768 New-London Gazette
New-London Gazette (August 12, 1768).

“Last Night the shops of the subscribers in said Middletown was broke open.”

Many advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers listed all sorts of consumer goods as a means of encouraging readers to visit shops, examine the merchandise, and make purchases. Other advertisements, however, demonstrate that not all colonists acquired goods through those means. Some colonists instead resorted to theft.

Such was the case in Middletown, Connecticut, at the end of July in 1768. On the morning of the final day of the month, George Philips, Asal Johnson, and Francis Whitmore all awoke to discover that their shops had been “broke open” during the night and several items stolen. The thief or thieves grabbed “about 6 dozen barcelona handkerchiefs, of which 2 dozen were black, the rest shaded various colours; 1 dozen black cravats, 3 or 4 pieces of black ribbons, 1 paper of white metal buckles, 1 castor hat a little moth eaten, 2 or 3 penknives,” and currency in several denominations from Philips. Similar items went missing from the shops of Johnson and Whitmore. The volume of stolen goods suggests that the thieves may not have intended these items solely for their own use. Instead, they may have attempted to fence them or otherwise distribute them through what Serena Zabin has termed an informal economy that allowed greater numbers of colonists to participate in the consumer revolution.

Philips and Johnson offered a reward to “Any person who will seize the thief or thieves with any or all of said articles, and secure them so that they shall be brought to justice.” The penalties could be quite severe for those convicted. Two years earlier in Rhode Island, for instance, Joseph Hart became a convict servant, sold into servitude “for the term of three years to satisfy the damages and costs of his prosecution and conviction, for stealing sundry goods.” Colonists who chose to gain access to the consumer revolution via extralegal means weighed the risks and rewards of acquiring goods that might otherwise have remained beyond their reach.