What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A general Assortment of English and India GOODS.”
For the third week in a row, Solomon Southwick, the printer of the Newport Mercury, distributed an advertising supplement because he did not have sufficient space to print all the news and notices submitted to his printing office on Queen Street. As usual, the standard issue consisted of four pages, created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. The supplement consisted of only two pages, one on each side of a smaller sheet … but not simply half a sheet of the paper used for printing the standard issue.
Instead, Southwick conserved his paper supply by resorting to an even smaller sheet. Rather than accommodating three columns, the smaller sheet allowed for only two columns of the same width. Southwick left it at that for the supplement that accompanied the May 31, 1773, edition. For the May 24 and June 7 supplements, however, he managed to find room for a few more advertisements by creating a third column that ran perpendicular to the other two columns. The printer placed shorter advertisements in this narrow column.
That worked well for the two lines that advised “Choice red CEDAR POSTS to sell, by THOMAS TRIPP” or the three lines about “CASH given for clean LINEN RAGES, coarse or fine, at the PRINTING-OFFICE in Newport.” John Bours, on the other hand, ran a longer advertisement for a “general Assortment of English and India GOODS … at his shop, the sign of the golden eagle.” To fit it in the narrow column without breaking down the type and setting it again, Southwick merely divided the advertisement in half and placed the two halves next to each other. He did the same for a similar advertisement placed by George Lawton and Robert Lawton and his own notice about imported writing paper. That facilitated reconstituting the advertisements when necessary to appear as usual in columns that had not been rotated when space permitted.
Bours’s advertisement did feature a slight variation on the usual practice. When it ran in the standard issue on June 14, the printer replaced the smaller font for “GOODS” with a larger font to help attract attention. The smaller font had been necessary to make the advertisement fit in the narrow column, but the notice received new consideration when space permitted. Such was the exception rather than the rule when printers squeezed advertisements into what would have otherwise been margins.
Colonial printers often published advertising supplements that made such use of the space available to them. Southwick and his counterparts in other towns devised a means of serving the advertisers who placed notices and the subscribers who read them while simultaneously minimizing the costs of producing and disseminating their newspapers.