What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold …”
Like most other newspaper published in the colonial era, a standard issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half. Robert Wells, the printer, distributed a four-page issue once a week. On occasion, however, Wells had too much content – news, editorials, advertisements, to include in the standard issue. In order to publish the latest intelligence and paid notices in a timely manner, he supplemented the standard issue with an additional sheet.
Such was the case with the August 30, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. It consisted of six pages, the standard four-page issue and another sheet with one page printed on either side. When other printers resorted to this means of increasing the length of an issue, many tended to distribute an additional half sheet that included a masthead that read “Supplement to the …” The half sheet thus matched the size of rest of the issue. It maintained the same format as the standard issue. Wells, on the other hand, distributed his supplemental pages on smaller sheets.
Consider the format of a standard issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Four columns spanned the page. The supplemental sheet that accompanied the August 30 edition did not bear a separate masthead. Instead, the title ran across the top, as it did on every page, and the numbering continued uninterrupted, making a date unnecessary. The additional sheet featured two columns that ran vertically and a narrower third column that rotated the text of the advertisements ninety degrees in order to make them fit on the page. Why do this? It avoided the time and effort of resetting type for notices that previously appeared in other issues. Wells and the compositor devised a system that allowed them to cover every square inch of the supplementary sheet with content. It avoided wasting any paper when they did not have enough content to fill an entire half sheet, especially important now that paper was in short supply due to the import taxes levied by the Townshend Acts. The supplemental sheet did not match the rest of the issue in its appearance, but it was an efficient way to circulate all the news and advertising received in Wells’s printing office that week.
Unfortunately, working with digital surrogates for the original sources does not allow for exact measurements of the standard issue and the supplementary sheet. Accessible Archives and its counterparts do not include that sort of metadata, in large part because it would be prohibitively expense to do so. The size of both sorts of pages – the standard issue and the supplement – appear the same when viewed in digital format, even though visual evidence demonstrates that the printer used sheets of very different sizes. Digitized primary sources allow for greater accessibility, but they cannot answer every question. Scholars and others must remember that digitized sources are supplements to, rather than replacements for, the original documents.