What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A large Assortment of English and India GOODS, consisting of the the following Articles.”
The July 14, 1766, issues of the Boston-Gazette overflowed with advertising, in part because several merchants and shopkeepers inserted extensive list advertisements. Several of them were of a moderate length, extending two or three times the number of column inches occupied by those that were the standard “squares” that served as the basic unit for selling advertising in many colonial newspapers. William Palfrey’s advertisement on the first page took up most the third and final column, running from just below the masthead almost to the bottom of the page. It left just enough room to squeeze in a four-line advertisement for loaf sugar available at “John and William Powell’s Warehouse.”
Samuel Eliot’s advertisement was by far the longest. It took up the entire first column on the third page. What could have been a dense and impenetrable block of text, however, had some visual variation thanks to the decision to divide the list of merchandise into two columns and list only one or two items per line. This created sufficient white space to make the advertisement a bit more navigable.
Only three of the list advertisements in this issue of the Boston-Gazette were divided into columns. They happened to be the three longest advertisements, which may not have been a coincidence. The printer may have decided that some means of dividing the page was necessary. In addition to the advertisements placed by Eliot and Palfrey, Jolley Allen’s advertisement (with its distinctive decorative border) was divided into columns. Recall that Allen placed the same advertisement, complete with a distinctive border, in all four of Boston’s newspapers, but the Boston-Gazette was the only one in which it was divided into two columns.
It seems quite possible that the printer experimented with the design of the longer advertisements in order to create a more visually appealing publication and to make the advertisements easier to navigate. This strategy replicated the “LIST of LETTERS remaining in the Post-Office” that covered the entire first column and half of the second on the first page of this issue of the Boston-Gazette. In general, this provides further evidence, though certainly not definitive, that printers took the lead in determining the format of newspaper advertisements while their clients supplied the copy.