February 13

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

Left: Boston-Gazette (February 11, 1771); Right: Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (January 14, 1771).

“The following BOOKS, which will be Sold for a little more than the SterlingCost.”

John Boyles placed identical advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy in January and February 1771.  Purveyors of goods and services often submitted identical copy to printing offices, leaving the format to the compositors who set the type.  As a result, the contents of their advertisements were consistent across publications, but graphic design varied significantly.  That was not the case, however, with Boyles’s advertisements.  They were identical – copy and format – in the two newspapers.

Consulting digital copies rather than originals does not allow for measurements, but it does permit other means of comparison.  Note, for instance, that in Boyles’s location on the third line, “Next Door to the THREE DOVES,” the last three letters in the word “DOVES” rise slightly in both advertisements.  Similarly, the “o” in “to” is slightly higher than the “t.”  Three lines lower, the words “Sterling” and “Cost” do not have a space between them in either advertisement.  Instead, they run together as “SterlingCost.”  The line that separates the two columns extends only to the top of the last item in the list, “Hoyle’s Games,” in both advertisements.  Throughout the advertisements, spelling, capitalization, italics, spacing, line breaks, and every other typographical choice appear identical, a lack of variation rendered practically impossible unless the printers of the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy shared the advertisement after setting the type.

The timing of the advertisement’s appearance in the two newspapers allows for that possibility.  It ran once in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on January 14, 1771, and then ran twice more in the Boston-Gazette on February 4 and 11.  Three weeks elapsed between its appearance in the first newspaper and the next.

This example raises a variety of questions about the business practices of early American printers as well as decisions made by at least one advertiser.  Printers usually established advertising rates that included setting type and running advertisements in several issues, usually three or four.  They then charged additional fees for each subsequent insertion.  Boyles’s advertisement ran three times, but not in consecutive issues of the same publication.  Why did the advertisement seemingly move from one newspaper to another (as opposed to the common practice of submitting the same copy to multiple newspapers simultaneously)?  What role did Boyles play in making this decision?  What role did the printers of the two newspapers play?  Who transferred the type from one printing office to another?  Under what circumstances?  When and how did the type return from the Boston-Gazette to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy?  How did the printers and Boyles handle payment for the advertisement?  How often did early American printers share type already set?  They frequently reprinted items from one newspaper to another, but sharing type in this manner suggests a very different level of collaboration among printers.  These questions do not have easy answers, but they suggest complex interactions among printers and advertisers that merit more investigation to understand the production of early American newspapers and the business of advertising in the eighteenth century.