March 24

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Pennsylvania Journal (March 24, 1773).

“I had not just cause to attack her reputation in the manner I have published.”

It was a rare retraction.  James Harding instructed William Bradford and Thomas Bradford, printers of the Pennsylvania Journal, to discontinue an advertisement in which he advised the community against extending credit to his wife, Margaret.

James did not reveal the circumstances the prompted him to place his first advertisement in the March 3, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal.  In that notice, he succinctly declared, “LET no Person credit my Wife, MARGARET HARDING, on my account, for I will pay none of her debts, after this date.”  Throughout the colonies, aggrieved husbands regularly placed similar notices concerning recalcitrant wives.  In many instances, they provided much more detail about how the women misbehaved or even “eloped” or abandoned their husbands.  Without access to the family’s financial resources, controlled by each household’s patriarch, most wives could not publish rebuttals.  Those who did offered very different accounts of marital discord and who was really at fault.  For many women, running away was the most effective means of protecting themselves from abusive husbands.

Less than a week after placing the advertisement, James had a change of heart and sent instructions for the printers to remove the notice from subsequent issues.  “HAVING published an advertisement in your last Paper, prohibiting persons from crediting my Wife, MARGARET HARDING, on my account,” James stated, “I do hereby, in justice to my Wife’s character, declare, that I had not just cause to attack her in the manner I have published.”  Having reached that realization, he “therefore do forbid the continuance of said advertisement.”  Once again, James did not go into details, though friends, neighbors, and acquaintance – women and men alike – probably shared what they knew and what they surmised as they gossiped among themselves.

Pennsylvania Journal (March 24, 1773).

James intended for his initial advertisement to run for a month, according to the “1 m,” a notation for the compositor, that followed his signature.  In the end, that notice appeared just one before the Bradfords published his retraction in the March 10, 17, and 24 editions of the Pennsylvania Journal.  Someone in the printing office may have felt some sympathy for Margaret.  The retraction ran immediately below the “PRICES-CURRENT in PHILADELPHIA” on March 10, making it the first advertisement readers encountered as they transitioned from news items to paid notices.  That likelihood increased the chances of readers noticing the retraction, even if they only skimmed the rest of the advertisement.  Margaret did not share her side of the story in the newspaper, but it may have been some consolation that James’s acknowledgement that he erred in “attack[ing] her reputation” appeared repeatedly and the initial notice only once.  That was more satisfaction than most women targeted by similar advertisements received from their husbands in the public prints.

December 17

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

Georgia Gazette (December 17, 1766).

The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes … was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, issued a retraction of one of the advertisements that appeared in the December 17 issue: “The advertisement concerning the sale of negroes, &c. belonging to the estate of Mr. William Smith, deceased, was printed in the last page of this paper by mistake.”

That advertisement by Matthew Roche, the Provost Marshal, would have looked familiar to readers of the Georgia Gazette. Dated “12 Nov. 1766,” it had appeared in previous issues in order to give interested parties sufficient advance notice that slaves, cattle, horses, and fifty acres of land that included a “handsome dwelling house, garden, tan-yard, and several other convenient buildings” would be auctioned “on Tuesday the 16th day of December, 1766.”

That’s right: December 16, the day before the issue was dated and distributed for public consumption. Johnston did not publish the retraction because the sale had been canceled but instead because it truly had been printed “by mistake,” a mistake made in the office of the printer.

That Johnston overlooked this advertisement, not noticing that the new issue included an outdated advertisement until after the broadsheet had already been printed on one side, raises some interesting questions about advertisements that ran for more than a few weeks. Did advertisers contract and pay to have those advertisements repeatedly inserted? Or, did some advertisements serve as filler, published gratis, when printers lacked other content?

Johnston may have been distracted with filling the final page with advertisements already set in type; that would explain how he overlooked the date of the auction of William Smith’s estate. The same issue included other advertisements that ran for months (not just for weeks): Donald Mackay’s advertisement for a runaway slave (dated “5th August, 1766”) and the sale of Baillie’s Island by the executors of Colonel Kenneth Baillie (first published in November 1766 and repeated well into 1767). Mackay and Baillie’s executors may very well have arranged for their advertisements to appear so many times.

If they did not, however, that suggests that printers sometimes used advertisements for their own purposes in constructing complete issues of their newspapers. While it may be tempting to argue that some advertisers repeated their notices frequently because they believed in the power of advertising (or, in the case of Mackay, because he really wanted to retrieve Maria, “a TALL SLIM LIKELY NEGROE GIRL”), it is also important to question whether the advertisers themselves were indeed responsible for how frequently their notices appeared.