April 1

GUEST CURATOR: Aidan Griffin

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

Providence Gazette (April 1, 1769).

“Joseph Belcher … will take in Pay … old Pewter.”

“Pewter is an alloy of two metals, tin and lead,” explains Robert P. Rich. Pewter goods like plates, cups, and pitchers were common in colonial America, but there was a problem with pewtersmith’s supplies. The colonies lacked tin, one of the elements needed for making pewter, so it needed to be imported from Britain. However, not much tin was imported, which was designed to give British pewtersmiths an advantage over American pewtersmiths. This takes us back to the advertisement where Joseph Belcher said he would take old pewter as payment. Lacking one of the metals needed to make pewter, American pewtersmiths wanted old pieces of pewterware that they could use to make new pewterware. Rich notes that “due to the low metaling point of pewter metal, it could easily be melted down and re-cast into new forms with little loss of material.” To learn more visit “Recycling in Colonial America.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

The “(69)” on the final line of Joseph Belcher’s advertisement was not part of the copy submitted to the printing office by the pewtersmith. Instead, it was a notation inserted by the compositor. It indicated that Belcher’s advertisement first ran in issue “NUMB. 269” published on March 4, 1769. Other paid notices in the Providence Gazette included similar numbers on the final line, including “(71)” at the conclusion of an advertisement for an iron forge for lease and “(72)” alongside “STEPHEN ARNOLD, Proprietors Clerk” in a legal notice. These numbers helped the compositor and others keep track of how many times advertisements appeared so they could be discontinued at the end of the period specified by the advertiser. Other advertisements included “(T.b.c.)” rather than an issue number, perhaps indicating “to be continued” until such time that the advertiser sent instructions to discontinue those notices. Like many other printers throughout the colonies, John Carter had a portion of his bookkeeping practices on display within the pages of his newspaper.

In most cases the compositor could have simply compared the current issue number to the issue number listed in the advertisement to count how many times it had appeared. That system, however, had been disrupted in the Providence Gazette in the March 25 edition. Carter published more news than usual, squeezing out advertising. He acknowledged as much in a brief notice that assured readers and, especially, advertisers that “Advertisements omitted, for Want of Room, shall be in out next.” Belcher’s advertisement was one of those omitted. After its initial insertion on March 4, it ran in the next two issues before its brief hiatus and then returned for one last time in the April 1 edition.

This example raises questions about common practices related to advertisements in printing offices throughout the colonies. The issue numbers that appeared at the conclusion of so many advertisements were certainly a helpful tool for bookkeeping and other purposes or else compositors would not have expended the time and energy to include them. Yet they had to be used in combination with other records, such as ledgers and previous issues, in order to tell the whole story. Did printers and compositors generate other sorts of documents, such as weekly checklists, to aid in keeping track of which advertisements needed to be inserted in new issues or discontinued because advertisers agreed to pay for only a certain number of insertions? How closely did printers or others who kept the account books coordinate with the compositors that set the type and transferred (or not) advertisements from one issue to the next? Answering these questions would reveal more about the hierarchies and distribution of responsibilities in early American printing offices.