In the late 1430s, Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable type opened up a new world for those who wished to disseminate information to the general public. The first ad in English appeared in 1477. The first ad in an English newspaper was printed in 1625 in Mercurius Britannicus and concerned the publication of a book. The term advertising was introduced in 1655. By 1704, the first U.S. newspaper, the Boston News Letter, began carrying advertisements.
Much of colonial American advertising, by today's standards, would actually come under the heading of classified pieces. Ships for sale and notices of those sailing were among the most numerous classifiedlike ads of the time, although want ads were not uncommon.
As the 18th century came to an end, London's Morning Herald was going so far as to classify its "Wants" columns by category&emdash;"Want Places," "Sales by Auction," "To Be Sold" and "To Be Lett"&emdash;while cooks, servants, housemaids, teachers, coachmen and ladies' maids offered their services in shorter advertisements. Virtually all London's newspapers were replete with advertising.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger is said to have invented "modern" classified advertising shortly after the U.S. Civil War, which ended in 1865. Essentially, it was the first to promote this type of advertising as a special department.
In the early days of newspapers—just as at present—the want ad afforded the individual an opportunity to carry a message to the masses at a relatively small cost. "Auction Sales" and "Marine Intelligence" (sailing times, etc.) were the first classifications most editors adopted, although "Amusements" were also generally grouped. Then came categories such as "Commercial Advertisement" and "Houses."
By 1842, the idea of actually "classifying" ads into various categories had made considerable progress. Medical classifieds were usually the biggest category, but they were often fraudulent, many of them offering nothing more than the products of quackery.
Between 1839 and 1844, a cut illustration, two type-lines high, was placed to the right of the ad. In 1848, the use of illustrations in classifieds disappeared. In the 1850s, newspapers introduced white space around ads, allowing classified buyers to purchase blank space to make their message stand out from the crowd.
The 20th century and beyond
Nonpersonal classified ads of the 20th century generally fall into one of five major categories: employment, automobiles, real estate, rentals and merchandise. Overall, the classified ad form accounts for as much as 40% of a newspaper's income. For years, classifieds have cushioned newspapers from drops in revenue from other ad categories.
During World War II, "help-wanted" advertising increased dramatically as men left their employment to enter the armed forces. That left a tremendous number of jobs that needed to be filled. During July 1943, for instance, the Chicago Tribune noted that such ads had swelled its classified section to the point where 51% of the newsprint consumed that month had been used to print the classified ads.
This increase in help-wanted ads presented the Tribune with a double-edged sword: Because of the war, newsprint was at a premium; yet the newspaper wished to maintain its dominance as a classified medium. The solution combined switching to a nine-column format and using smaller type. Not only did this solution address the two aforementioned considerations, it actually increased the average number of revenue lines per column by 20%.
In the early 1970s, want ads came under sharp attack for gender discrimination, mostly against women (Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, U.S. Supreme Court, 1973). Newspapers began eliminating the gender-specific column labels "Jobs—Male Interest" and "Jobs—Female Interest" from the help-wanted ads.
Although analysts are not sure why, from the later 1960s to the late 1980s, classifieds tended to maintain their strength when other advertising categories lagged. In 1989, however, classified ads suffered a severe decline, falling from a growth rate of 10.1% in 1988 to only 2.8%, a rate well below that of inflation.
Today, the two major categories of advertising in newspapers are classified and display. Classifieds constitute a major part of a newspaper publisher's income—approximately 27% of all newspaper revenue.
Classified ads are the only type of advertising the average person can buy on a line or word basis at reasonable cost. No particular knowledge or training in the art of printing is needed so classifieds are the easiest type of advertising. One can go to the newspaper office or telephone, and an ad-taker writes and schedules the ad; the whole process takes just a few minutes.
Since newspapers derive a large portion of their revenues from classified ads, it is no surprise that publishers are wary of the competition provided by the new electronic information services. The Internet classified scene had changed a great deal by the year 2000; initially, it needed "content" to draw consumers. So some newspapers posted some or all of their classified newspaper ads on the Web at no additional cost to the advertiser. As Internet usage began to increase, many people became willing to pay to have their ad on the Internet. As of 2000, some newspapers were charging an additional fee to post these ads, and electronic classifieds continued to grow.