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