What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Like many other eighteenth-century printers, John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, inserted numbers at the end of advertisements. These numbers were not intended for readers but instead for those who worked in the printing office. They indicated how long an advertisement should run. For instance, an advertisement announcing that the brigantine Rebekah would sail for Jamaica appeared in the supplement that accompanied the August 3, 1769, edition of the New-York Journal. The compositor inserted the numbers 85 and 88 on the final line, 85 indicating that the advertisement first ran in issue 1385 on July 20 and 88 indicating that it would make its final appearance in issue 1388 on August 10. After that, the compositor would remove it. Similarly, Jonathan Hampton’s advertisement featuring a woodcut that depicted a Windsor chair also included 85 and 88 on the final line, though an earlier iteration included the numbers 63 and 72 instead. Hampton had inserted the advertisement for ten weeks earlier in the year, apparently determined it had been worth the investment, and then inserted it again for a shorter run.
Other advertisements, however, included a single number and a dash. Samuel Francis (better known today as Samuel Fraunces) ran an advertisement that concluded with “79–“ instead of two numbers. Similarly, Jarvis Roebuck had “62–“ on the final line of his advertisement. In each case, the number indicated the issue that the advertisement first appeared: issue 1362 on February 2 for Jarvis and issue 1379 on June 8 (the same date at that opened the advertisement) for Francis. What did the dash mean? How did the compositor interpret it when deciding which items belonged in an issue and which should be removed?
The publication history of these two advertisements reveals that the dash did not indicate that an advertisement should run continuously. Francis’s advertisement ran for five consecutive issues (June 8, 15, 22, and 22 and July 6) before appearing sporadically in six more issues (July 20, August 3 and 24, September 7, and October 12 and 26). Roebuck’s advertisement ran sporadically from the start, appearing on February 2 and 9, March 2 and 30, April 13 and 27, May 25, June 1, 8, and 29, July 27, August 3, 24, and 31, September 14, and October 12. Seemingly no particular plan corresponds to the publication schedule for the sixteen insertions of Roebuck’s notice over the course of nine months.
Perhaps the dash indicated that the compositor had carte blanche to insert the advertisement when necessary to complete a page. These two advertisements were the final items in the August 3 supplement, though they did not always appear at the end of an issue or supplement. Moderate in length, they may have been convenient filler when the compositor estimated that an issue or supplement ran short of other content. Paired numbers, like “85 88,” streamlined bookkeeping and production of the New-York Journal, but this arrangement for continued yet sporadic insertions required careful attention to bookkeeping. The printer or another employee in the printing office would have had to peruse each issue to see which advertisements with dashes appeared and then update the ledger accordingly.
What role did advertisers play in this process? Could they instruct the printing office to insert an advertisement on a week-by-week basis? If compositors made decisions about including advertisements, did advertisers pay for every insertion? Did advertisers receive any sort of discount for this arrangement? Did advertisements every run after advertisers no longer wished for them to appear? It seems unlikely that Francis would have been enthused about an advertisement promoting the summer entertainments at Vauxhall Gardens to appear in the New-York Journal in late October.
Some of the numbers compositors inserted at the end of advertisements clearly indicated their purpose in the operation of a printing office and the production of colonial newspapers. Other notations, however, only hinted at their purpose and now raise tantalizing questions about how printers, compositors, advertisers, and others used them. The dash at the end of some advertisements certainly served some purpose; otherwise compositors would not have taken the time to include such notation. A more systematic survey of advertisements combined with careful examination of printers’ ledgers may reveal some of the practices that printers found efficient and effective in running their shops in the eighteenth century.