What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
The August 12, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette included several short advertisements that extended only five lines. In its entirety, one read: “To be SOLD by THOMAS G. STELLE, In Newport, Philadelphia superfine and common FLOUR, SHIP BREAD, BAR IRON, &c. (Tbc.).” Eighteenth-century readers would have recognized “&c.” as the abbreviation for et cetera. They would have ignored “(Tbc.),” understanding that it was a notation intended for the compositor rather than for readers.
Other advertisements in the same issue also included notations for use by the compositor and others in the printing office, though they each used numbers instead of letters. Jonathan Mosher’s advertisement for a lost pocketbook and a notice from the Overseers of the Poor concerning a five-year-old girl “to be bound out until she is 18,” both included “(88)” at the end or near the end. Another advertisement that offered a “pleasant Farm” for sale concluded with “(75).”
What did these notations mean? Like many other colonial printers, John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, charged a flat rate for setting the type for an advertisement and inserting it in three consecutive issues. Advertisers could pay additional fees to run their notices for longer periods. The notations in the advertisements helped compositors determine when it was time to remove them, but the examples from the Providence Gazette suggest that compositors did not rely on the notations alone. They must have also worked with a list of advertisements provided by the printer or someone else responsible for keeping records in the printing office.
Some advertisements did not include any notations. Presumably they appeared on a list drawn up by the printer to correspond with whatever arrangements had been made with the advertiser. Thomas Lindsey, for instance, may have made arrangements to check in with the printing office on a weekly basis to indicate if he wished for his advertisement concerning the bad behavior of his wife to run once again. He noted that Sarah had “eloped from my Bed and Board” and cautioned that he would not “pay any Debts of her contracting.” Lindsey hay have determined to continue the advertisement until such time that he and his wife reconciled or, if she did not return, long enough to get out the word that he would not pay her debts.
For those advertisements that included numbers as notations, the numbers corresponded to their first issue. Mosher’s advertisement for the lost pocketbook, for instance, first appeared in issue 288. If Mosher paid the standard fee, his advertisements would have appeared in issues 288, 289, and 290 before the compositor removed it. It continued, however, into issues 291 and 292. The compositor did not automatically remove it, suggesting that instructions on a separate list countermanded the instructions implicit in the notation. If Mosher had not yet recovered his pocketbook, he likely instructed the printer to continue the advertisement for additional weeks. Similarly, the notice from the Overseers of the Poor should have been discontinued after three issues, but continued because the girl had not yet been bound out.
The advertisement for the farm initially ran in three consecutive issues: 275, 276, and 277. It then appeared sporadically in issues 279, 284, 289, and 292. The “(75)” notation should have prompted the compositor to remove the advertisement when setting the type for issue 278. Its multiple reappearances suggest that the printer added the advertisement to a list of notices to appear in the current issue on several occasions.
What of “(Tbc.)” at the end of Stelle’s advertisement for flour, bread, and iron? It most likely stood for “to be continued,” indicating that it should appear indefinitely until Stelle instructed otherwise. By invoking this abbreviation rather than associating the advertisement with an issue number, the printer and compositor streamlined the production process. The compositor could continue to insert the advertisement unless the list of advertisements for a particular issue stated that the advertiser had chosen to discontinue it. By issue 292, Stelle’s advertisement ran in seventeen issues, absent only in 280. An abundance of advertising may have squeezed it out of that issue, the compositor may have overlooked it, or Stelle may have chosen to discontinue it for a week. Whatever the case, it soon returned and ran for another twelve consecutive weeks, the “(Tbc.)” aiding the compositor in determining if the advertisement should continue from one issue to the next.