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).

October 20

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

Oct 20 - 10:20:1769 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (October 20, 1769).

Advertisements omitted, will be in our next.”

In the late 1760s, the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy carried significantly less advertising than its counterparts printed in the largest port cities. Newspapers published in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia often overflowed with advertising, sometimes prompting printers to issue supplements in order to include all of the paid notices. The Connecticut Journal, on the other hand, rarely had enough advertising to fill an entire page.

On occasion, however, printers Thomas Green and Samuel Green found themselves with too many advertisements to fit in the standard issue. That was the case during the week of October 20, 1769. Advertisements comprised the entire final page of the newspaper’s standard four-page issue. The Greens had more advertisements, but they opted not to distribute a supplement with the issue. Instead, they inserted a note at the bottom of the third page: “(The new Advertisements are in the last Page. Advertisements omitted, will be in our next.)” A headline on the final page proclaimed, “NEW ADVERTISEMENTS” (not unlike the headline Peter Timothy inserted in the South-Carolina Gazette two days earlier), though not every notice that appeared below it ran for the first time in the October 20 edition. The Greens alerted readers to the presence of new content, an important service considering that most advertisements usually ran for several weeks, but the “NEW ADVERTISEMENTS” headline did not provide much assistance in navigating the notices on the final page.

The note that “Advertisements omitted, will be in our next” invited readers to peruse the next issue of the Connecticut Journal, but it also served another practical purpose for the printers. Rather than correspond with each advertiser whose notice did not appear in that issue, the Greens issued a blanket statement to reassure their clients that their advertisements had not been overlooked or forgotten. This note also encouraged prospective advertisers to consider placing their own paid notices in the Connecticut Journal or else find themselves at a disadvantage to their competitors who already submitted so many advertisements that the Greens did not have space to feature all of them. Many colonial printers depended on revenue generated by advertising to make publishing newspapers viable enterprises. Brief notices like this one from the Connecticut Journal demonstrate some of the practices adopted by printers in managing that aspect of the newspaper business.

October 18

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

Oct 18 - 10:18:1769 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (October 18, 1769).

For the Remainder of new Advertisements … turn to the last Page.”

Peter Timothy, the printer of the South-Carolina Gazette, included instructions to aid subscribers and other readers in navigating the October 18, 1769, edition of the newspaper. The front page consisted primarily of news items, but it also featured three paid notices of various sorts under the headline, “New Advertisements.” These advertisements ran at the bottom of the final column on the page, which concluded with further instructions. “For the Remainder of new Advertisements, Charles-Town News, &c.” Timothy explained, “turn to the last page.” There readers found local news, the shipping news from the customs house (which the printer branded as “Timothy’s Marine List”), and a dozen more paid notices under the same headline that ran on the front page, “New Advertisements.”

These were not the only advertisements that ran in the October 18 issue. Paid notices, nearly fifty of them, comprised the entire second and third pages. Like most other American newspapers published in the late 1760s, the South-Carolina Gazette consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half. Except for the news items on the front page and Timothy’s Marine List and a brief account of local news on the final page, advertising accounted for a significant proportion of the issue.

That was not uncommon, especially in newspapers published in the largest and busiest port cities, such as Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. New articles, editorials, and other news content were easy for readers to spot, in part because printers rarely reprinted such items. Advertisements, on the other hand, usually ran for multiple weeks. Some even appeared week after week for months. Compositors moved them around on the page or from one page to another in their efforts to make all the content for any particular issue fit. This usually required readers to skim all of the advertisements to discover anything appearing for the first time. Timothy’s occasional headlines and instructions, however, sometimes helped readers to scan the South-Carolina Gazette more efficiently. Readers interested in legal notices, inventory at local shops, or descriptions of enslaved people who escaped from bondage did not have to sort through the entire newspaper to find new content. Instead, Timothy sorted it, labeled it, and provided instructions for finding it. Clustering paid notices together under a headline for “New Advertisements” was the closest that eighteenth-century newspapers came to classifying advertisements. In a newspaper that featured as much advertising as the South-Carolina Gazette, this was an important service to readers.