What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“SUPPLEMENT to the NEW-YORK JOURNAL OR GENERAL ADVERTISER.”
John Holt’s newspaper lived up to the full name that appeared in the masthead: “THE NEW-YORK JOURNAL; OR, THE GENERAL ADVERTISER.” In many instances, Holt’s newspaper might better have been called an advertiser because it carried significantly more paid notices than news content.
Consider, for example, the October 27, 1768, edition. It consisted of the standard four-page issue created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. Each page featured three columns. In addition, Holt distributed a four-page “SUPPLEMENT to the NEW-YORK JOURNAL OR GENERAL ADVERTISER.” Printed on a smaller sheet, each page had two columns of text the same width as those in the regular issue as well as a third column of text rotated such that it appeared perpendicular to the rest. The sheet was not wide enough to accommodate three columns, so the compositor devised a creative means of inserting advertisements using type already set for previous issues.
In the regular issue, advertising filled a significant amount of space: five of the twelve columns. News and other content, such as a table of the tides and a poet’s corner, accounted for the remaining columns. Advertising comprised an even greater proportion of the supplement. Only two columns of news appeared in it.
Those advertisements helped to sustain the New-York Journal. Like most eighteenth-century newspapers, its viability depended in large part on the revenues generated from advertising. Unlike most newspapers of the era, it listed the fees for advertisement in the colophon. “Advertisements of no more Length than Breadth,” Holt specified, “are inserted for Five Shillings, four Weeks, and One Shilling for each Week after.” A great many advertisements happened to be longer than they were wide. In such instances, Holt charged “in the same Proportion” for “larger Advertisements.” Peter T. Curtenius’s advertisement, twice as long as it was wide, would have cost ten shillings to set the type and run for four weeks and an additional two shillings for each additional insertion.
Not all colonial newspapers contained as many advertisements as the New-York Journal, but most did devote at least one-quarter of their space – and often much, much more – to paid notices. In that regard, newspapers were delivery mechanisms for advertising as much as for news, even in an era predating the rise of Madison Avenue and the modern advertising industry.