August 2

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

Aug 2 - 7:30:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (July 30, 1767).

“The following Goods, which will to be sold … by JOHN SHEE.”

Consisting of a block of densely formatted text with little white space and almost no variation in font size, John Shee’s advertisement certainly would not have been considered flashy, but that did not necessarily mean that it was ineffective by eighteenth-century standards.

Shee observed many of the conventions of the day. He made an appeal to price (“sold on the most moderate terms”) and offered more than one option for payment (“cash, or the usual credit”). In noting that his merchandise had been “Imported in the last vessels from England,” he reminded potential customers that they were participating in transatlantic consumer culture that linked them to their counterparts in London and the English provinces. That these goods arrived via the “last vessels” also suggested that they were the most current fashions available.

Shee expended the most effort in detailing the assortment of items he stocked, everything from textiles and adornments (comprising more than half the advertisement) to coffee mills to pen knives to gunpowder and shot. Even then, he had not exhausted his inventory. Eighteenth-century readers knew that the “&c. &c.” that concluded his list meant “etc. etc.,” a promise that potential customers could examine an even greater array of goods upon visiting Shee’s shop. By listing dozens and dozens of items, Shee made an appeal to consumer choice. He invited potential customers to imagine acquiring, wearing, admiring, using, displaying, and possessing the goods he sold. He also offered them independence, the ability to make their own decisions about which items to purchase to fit their own tastes or to distinguish themselves from friends and neighbors. Such a lengthy list meant that customers did not have to content themselves with whatever happened to be on the shelves. A nota bene appended to the conclusion even suggested that the shopkeeper was constantly adding new merchandise to the selection he offered for sale.

In terms of the graphic design elements, Shee’s advertisement replicated others in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Short of paying extra for a woodcut to accompany his advertisement, he likely had little control over the layout. Instead, he accepted the standard format adopted by a compositor who squeezed as much content as possible onto the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette. It was not the visual appeal of their advertisements that Shee and many of his counterparts were convinced would sell their goods. Instead, they relied on careful attention to a set of appeals they believed resonated with consumers. In the absence of varied graphic elements, Shee and other shopkeepers expected potential customers to approach their advertisements as active readers.

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