September 19

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

Massachusetts Spy (September 16, 1773).

“˙ɥsɐƆ ɹoɟ dɐǝɥƆ ǝɯǝɹʇxƎ”

Although likely resulting from an error in the printing office, Duncan Ingraham’s advertisement in the September 16, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Spy almost certainly caught the attention of readers.  Except for a heading, “ADVERTISEMENT,” the entire notice appeared upside down at the top of the third column on the second page.  The placement of the advertisement, not just its orientation, was unusual.  In that issue, Isaiah Thomas, the printer, or a compositor who worked for the Massachusetts Spy reserved advertising for the final two pages, making Ingraham’s advertisement the only paid notice on the second page.  It appeared after news dated, “TUESDAY, September 13. BOSTON,” and above “EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE” dated, “WEDNESDAY, September 14. BOSTON,” the date and location based on when ship captains delivered the news to the printing office, not when and where the events occurred.  Even without flipping the text, Ingraham’s advertisement was a juxtaposition from the rest of the contents on the page, meriting its own header.  No separate headers for “ADVERTISEMENTS” appeared on the third or fourth pages.  Had Thomas or the compositor originally intended for something else to appear in the space ultimately occupied by the upside-down advertisement?

When Ingraham’s advertisement next ran in the Massachusetts Spy, two weeks later on September 30, the compositor corrected the error.  It appeared right-side up, interspersed among other paid notices on the final page.  Working quickly to print the newspaper on a manually-operated press, those working in the printing office may not have caught the error after a compositor set the type for Ingraham’s advertisement and the entire block of text got rotated when added to the other contents of the second page.  How did readers react?  Did this work to Ingraham’s benefit?  When readers encountered the upside-down advertisement, did they turn their newspaper over so they could peruse it?  Upon realizing it was an advertisement rather than news, how many opted to look more closely?  How many decided to ignore it in favor of continuing with updates from England, Russia, Egypt, and other faraway places?  Did the unusual format at least make the advertisement’s headline, “Extreme Cheap for Cash,” more memorable for readers, even those not attentive to the remainder of the advertisement?  Ingraham advertised frequently enough that regular readers would have already been familiar with the merchant.  For marketing purposes, it may have been sufficient for some to see his name, “Extreme Cheap for Cash,” and a list of goods without reading through the entire inventory.

Printers, compositors, and advertisers sometimes experimented with typography in order to call more attention to certain newspaper notices.  While that does not appear to have been the intention in this instance, Ingraham’s upside-down advertisement still raises questions about how readers experienced advertisements with unusual formats or placed in unusual spots within newspapers.  Ingraham’s advertisement, flipped over and surrounded by news, may have garnered more notice than had it run alongside advertisements from his competitors that ran elsewhere in the Massachusetts Spy.

September 5

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

New-York Journal (September 2, 1773).

The Transpositions in Mr. SKINNER’S Advertisement, in our Paper … were owing to an Error in the Press.”

Something strange happened with S. Sp. Skinner’s advertisement for “the best of RUM” in the New-York Journal near the end of summer in 1773.  In the September 2 edition, a manicule directed attention to a note from the printing office: “The Transpositions in Mr. SKINNER’S Advertisement, in our Paper, Number 1597, and 1598, were owing to an Error in the Press.”  John Holt, the printer, apparently attempted to make amends with an advertiser after making mistakes in a notice that ran for several months.

Skinner’s advertisement first ran in the December 31, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal and then ran regularly for the next five months.  On May 27, 1773, he added a nota bene: “To prevent further Mistakes, desires his Country Customers to take Notice, that there is a Distillery adjoining Mr. Skinner’s Buildings, to the Southward, which is not occupied by him.”  Skinner did not want his advertisements to inadvertently send customers to his competitor.  The updated advertisement continued through August 5.  In the August 12 edition, however, six lines from the original advertisement were mistakenly printed below the nota bene, creating an advertisement that did not make sense.  Someone in the printing office noticed the error after that edition, “NUMBER 1597,” went to press … or perhaps Skinner contacted the printer …and attempted to make corrections for the August 19 edition, “NUMBER 1598.”  However, that only resulted in lengthening the advertisement by the nota bene a second time at the end.  It did not remedy the original error.  The compositor managed to make the necessary corrections for the August 26 edition.  The following week, Skinner launched a new advertisement, a shorter one, in the September 2 edition.  The first time it appeared, it included the note from the printing office, but not in subsequent insertions.

New-York Journal (August 5, 1773; August 12, 1773; August 19, 1773).

The various iterations of Skinner’s advertisement demonstrate a kind of error that was possible yet rarely occurred as printing offices throughout the colonies published advertisements for multiple weeks or even many months.  Typically, compositors set the type for each advertisement once, but then repositioned advertisements in each issue to make all the content fit.  That included adding new advertisements and removing others, all done without duplicating labor by setting type for any advertisement more than once.  What exactly occurred with Skinner’s advertisement, how the printing office introduced “The Transpositions” on August 12, is not readily apparent, though Holt and others clearly attempted to make corrections, introducing more “Transpositions” in the first attempt on August 19.  Most advertisements in colonial newspapers appeared week after week in the same format as their original insertion, printed from the same type. Something unusual, maybe even careless, happened with Skinner’s advertisement, prompting the printer to acknowledge the error, perhaps after receiving complaints from the advertiser about haphazard copy that made the notice border on gibberish.

October 3

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

South-Carolina and American General Gazette (October 3, 1770).

“He proposes teaching COTILLONS in the newest taste.”

The South Carolina Newspapers collection available via Accessible Archives is an invaluable resource for producing the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project.  The collection includes digitized images of three newspapers published in Charleston in 1770, the South-Carolina Gazette, the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, and the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.

Transcriptions of the newspapers accompany the images.  In many cases, those transcriptions make it easier to decipher the contents of advertisements and other items that appear illegible for a variety or reasons.  Perhaps the original printing did not produce a clear impression in 1770 or the document suffered damage over time or poor photography resulted in a remediation that does not accurately the original.  Sometimes more than one of these factors influence the quality of digital surrogates.

Transcriptions, whether undertaken by people or technology, must be consulted with care.  Consider an advertisement for “PIKE’s DANCING and FENCING SCHOOLS” that ran in the October 3, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.  The digital image is not easily legible, though an experienced research familiar with the language and contents of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements can piece together the contents.  The transcription, on the other hand, leaves out words, such as “Ladies” in the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen,” and does not accurately reproduce others, such as “he proposes trashing COTILLONSisa new first” for “he proposes teaching COTILLONS in the newest taste.”

Flawed Transcription of Pike’s Advertisement

While this is obviously an error in the transcription, the interface created by Accessible Archives does correct an error that the compositor made when setting the type for the issue that contained Pike’s advertisement.  That issue consisted of six pages, four pages created by printing two on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half and two additional pages of advertising printed on either side of a smaller sheet.  That supplement has the wrong date at the top, “Sept. 24 – Oct. 2” instead of “Sept. 24 – Oct. 3” at the top of the pages for the rest of the issue.  The page numbers for the supplement, 183 and 184, run continuously with the pages printed on the larger sheet.  The date 1770 appears in the title (an abbreviated masthead): “THE SOUTH-CAROLINA AND AMERICAN GENERAL GAZETTE, for 1770.”  Dates in some of the advertisements also make it clear that the supplement was printed in 1770.

Yet manuscript additions indicate that at some time the supplement was separated from the rest of the issue.  The first page includes a notation, either incomplete or partially illegible, that states, “Sup in 177[x],” with a missing digit at the end of the year.  Similarly, the supplement has a notation, not entirely legible, that declares it “does not belong in this [state].”  Most likely the “Oct. 2” error resulted in the supplement being cataloged or even bound with another issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette from another year, but an archivist noted the other discrepancies and context clues.  In the end, Accessible Archives arranged the digital images of all six pages of the issue together and in the correct order, despite an error made by the compositor in 1770.

South-Carolina and American General Gazette (October 3, 1770).

Human error and technological error sometimes creep into sources at every stage of their production, preservation, and remediation.  Such errors introduce miniature mysteries that can be entertaining to solve, but they also challenge researchers to constantly assess their sources to recognize any features that seem out of place or inconsistent with what they know about the period they are investigating or the subsequent collection and treatment of primary sources that make them accessible.