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.