May 25

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

May 25 - 5:25:1767 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1767).

“Very handsome Ivory Paddle Fans,

Bone Stick and Ebony Ditto,

Womens silk Mitts and Gloves.”

The layout of William Palfrey’s advertisement for “A fresh Assortment of English Piece Goods” distinguished it from most other commercial notices published in the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers in the 1760s. The shopkeeper listed much of his merchandise, but he did not resort to a paragraph of dense text or dividing the advertisement into two columns with one or two items on each line. Instead, he chose a couple of items for each line, specifying that every line be centered. This created quite a different visual effect in contrast to other advertisements that were crisply justified on the left and quite often on the right as well. Compare Palfrey’s advertisement to Daniel McCarthy’s advertisement, which appeared immediately to the left. Readers likely found Palfrey’s layout disorienting in comparison, especially since every advertisement on the page followed the style adopted by McCarthy. Palfrey’s disorienting layout thus made his advertisement the most noticeable advertisement on the page, giving him an edge over ten other shopkeepers.

May 25 - 5:25:1767 McCarthy in Boston Post-Boy
Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1767).

Although advertisers usually generated copy and printers determined layout, it seems clear that Palfrey had a hand in designing the unique visual aspects of his advertisement. He placed the same notice in the Boston-Gazette on May 25, 1767. It featured almost identical format and layout. All of the same words appeared in capitals or italics. Certain lines appeared in larger font: not just “William Palfrey” and the first line of the list of goods (both of which would have been standard in any advertisement in any newspaper) but also “Tippets and Turbans,” items that the shopkeeper apparently wanted to emphatically bring to the attention of potential customers. A manicule directs readers to Palfrey’s promise to sell “very low for CASH” at the conclusion of the advertisement in both newspapers.

Very few advertisements for consumer goods and services included visual images in the eighteenth century, but that did not prevent some advertisers from attempting to distinguish their notices from those placed by their competitors. Although Palfrey advanced many of the same appeals, he devised another sort of innovation in marketing his wares.

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