The First Full-Page Advertisement in an American Newspaper

I usually refrain from selecting an additional advertisement to examine on days that my students are serving as guest curators, but I am making an exception in this case because Joseph and William Russell’s advertisement on the final page of the November 22, 1766, issue of the Providence Gazette was just too significant to allow it to pass without acknowledgment. I believe that this is the first full-page advertisement that appeared in an American newspaper!

nov-22-11221766-full-page-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766, left; November 29, 1766, right). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

For months I have been tracking the innovative layouts designed by Mary Goddard and Company when they began publishing the revived Providence Gazette in the summer of 1766. Between August and November, a trio of advertisers – Thompson and Arnold, Benjamin and Edward Thurber, and Samuel Nightingale, Jr. – placed advertisements that featured decorative borders to set them apart from everything else on the page. Each spanned two columns, dominating the pages on which they appeared. They deviated so significantly from standard eighteenth-century advertisements that they certainly would have attracted the attention of readers. No matter the goods they listed or the appeals the shopkeepers made, these advertisements already caused a visual sensation even before colonists read any of the copy.

Each of these advertisements looked like it could have been printed separately as a trade card that the shopkeepers would have distributed on their own, perhaps recording purchases on the reverse. For the issues of the Providence Gazette in which they appeared, it looked like the oversized advertisements had been positioned in one corner of a page and then the remaining columns built around them.

Given that Mary Goddard and Company were experimenting with size, format, and other graphic design elements on the advertising pages of the Providence Gazette, it probably should not have come as any surprise to find a full-page advertisement occupying the final page of the November 22, 1766, issue. Still, I could not believe my eyes when I saw the digitized image in Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database. I needed confirmation, so I visited the American Antiquarian Society and examined the original issue.

nov-22-11221766-full-page-providence-gazette
Providence Gazette (November 22, 1766).

If trade cards had inspired the design of the earlier advertisements, then broadsides must have inspired Joseph and William Russell’s full-page advertisement. Mary Goddard and Company had already played around with mixing genres by placing a trade card within the pages of a newspaper. Making a broadside the entire final page of the newspaper was the logical next step, one that was even more likely to attract notice. Imagine a reader holding up this issue of the Providence Gazette while perusing the pages in the middle. Instead of columns of smaller advertisements typical of other newspapers, observers would have been confronted by a single advertisement larger than any they had preciously encountered in an American newspaper.

I frequently argue that many of the advertising innovations of the twentieth century had precursors in the eighteenth century. Here we see yet another example of eighteenth-century printers and advertisers creating sophisticated marketing materials that have been largely forgotten or overlooked.

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