December 4

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (December 4, 1766).


I first began studying advertising in eighteenth-century America shortly after I finished my comprehensive exams in graduate school. During the very early stages of the project I discussed my work with a senior colleague at a reception held during a conference. “Don’t get too enamored of the advertisements with the pictures,” this professor counseled. “Those are certainly quaint, but make sure that you look at other advertisements as well.” In hindsight, I recognize both good and poor advice bound together in that conversation. The professor was certainly correct that the world of eighteenth-century advertising was much more extensive than the relatively few newspaper advertisements that included woodcuts. However, he dismissed those woodcuts too quickly when he implied that they were only of antiquarian, rather than scholarly, interest. Because I wanted to be a serious scholar and I wanted others to take my work seriously, I did not give woodcuts in newspaper advertisements as much attention as they merit.

In recent years, however, my interest in the production of advertising in early America has shifted to encompass visual culture and innovative graphic design much more extensively, partly as a result of my exposure to the conferences and other programs sponsored by the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society. I have come to realize that woodcuts, like the one depicting a wingback chair in upholsterer Thomas Hewes’s advertisement, have real significance beyond merely being “quaint.”

Hewes’ advertisement appeared in the two-page supplement that accompanied the December 4, 1766, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The contents of the supplement consisted exclusively of advertising, without other sorts of content. This more than doubled the space devoted to advertising for the December 4 edition. Amid all those advertisements, only six included any sort of visual image. The other five all featured a ship, the image produced by a woodcut that would have belonged to the printer. Most printers had a few stock images – ships, houses, slaves – that could be inserted interchangeably into advertisements. Other sorts of images, like Hewes’ chair, were commissioned by particular advertisers and used only in their advertisements. Compared to most other advertisers, Hewes invested additional creativity and expense in creating his advertisement.

The five advertisements with woodcuts of ships all promoted ships departing for Europe and encouraged colonists to book passage. That made Hewes’ advertisement unique in that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. It was the only advertisement for consumer goods that mobilized any sort of visual image to attract the attention of readers and make the advertisement more memorable. For anybody glancing through the six pages of the regular issue and its supplement, Hewes’ advertisement would have stood out. While the illustration may appear primitive to modern eyes (and perhaps even relatively crude to colonists familiar with engraved trade cards), that Hewes’ included an image at all amounted to an innovation intended to distinguish his business from others.

The Adverts 250 Project regularly documents the significance of the seemingly innumerable newspaper advertisements that lacked any sort of visual image. However, it’s also necessary to acknowledge the significance of those that di have some sort of “quaint” woodcut, an important aspect of the evolution of advertising in early America.

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