What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Now ready for Sale by JOLLEY ALLEN, At his Shop.”
Jolley Allen regularly placed advertisements in the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers published in the port city. On most occasions, readers could readily identify his notices, even at just a glance, because Allen made arrangements with printers to have them enclosed in decorative borders. This was a consistent feature from one newspaper to another, a relatively rare example of an advertiser exerting influence over typographical decisions in the eighteenth century. In most cases, advertisers generated copy but compositors made determinations about format and layout. Realizing the value of making his commercial notices easy to distinguish from others on the page, Allen insisted on retaining control over some of the visual aspects. Distinctive borders created with printing ornaments became his brand in multiple newspapers.
Allen neglected to utilize a border in some of his advertising during the summer of 1767, a decision he reversed in the September 7 edition of the Boston-Gazette. The border around his advertisement in that issue, however, was not its most distinctive element. Except for the colophon, Allen’s advertisement filled the entire final page. Spread over three columns, the merchant listed an assortment of imported goods – from textiles to groceries – that he sold “Wholesale and Retail” to customers in both town and country. Even without the decorative border, the size of the advertisement alone demanded attention. Eighteenth-century newspapers featured few full-page advertisements, each of them all the more noteworthy considering that a standard issue consisted of only four pages. The printers gave over a significant amount of space that might otherwise contain additional advertisements or news items.
Experimenting with a full-page advertisement must have been an expensive investment for Allen. He usually placed identical advertisements in all four of Boston’s newspapers, but not during the week that his full-page advertisement ran in the Boston-Gazette. None of the other local newspapers carried any advertising by Allen. He may have exhausted the money he budgeted for marketing in a single advertisement. He might also have wished to see what kind of response it garnered, waiting to place full-page advertisements in other publications only if he determined doing so was worth the investment.
Historians of advertising and print culture usually describe full-page advertisements as nineteenth-century innovations, but colonial merchants and shopkeepers had already experimented with the format. Though uncommon, such advertisements were not unknown in eighteenth-century America.