What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A LARGE ASSORTMENT OF GOODS.”
Lewis Johnson inserted an advertisement for his inventory of “A LARGE and COMPLETE ASSORTMENT of FRESH AND GENUINE MEDICINES” in the September 23, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. The partnership of Cowper and Telfairs also placed an advertisement, informing potential customers of the “LARGE ASSORTMENT OF GOODS” they had imported from London. The notices, each listing an elaborate array of items, appeared side by side.
Although Lewis Johnson and Cowper and Telfairs each resorted to the common list-style advertisement to market their wares, the visual aspects of their notices distinguished them from each other. Cowper and Telfairs opted for a dense paragraph that extended two-thirds of the column, enumerating everything from “white, striped and ermine flannels” to “shirt buttons” to “broad and narrow axes” to “complete sets of china.” With some exceptions, they grouped their merchandise together by category (textiles, accouterments and accessories, hardware, and housewares). This made it somewhat easier for potential customers to locate specific items of interest (while also introducing them to others they may not have otherwise considered), even though the merchants did not include any sort of headers to indicate where one type of merchandise ended and another began. This dense list maximized the number of items Cowper and Telfairs presented to the public. While its format may have been somewhat overwhelming or difficult to read, it offered extensive choices to consumers.
Johnson’s advertisement, on the other hand, occupied the same amount of space on the page, but did not list nearly as many items. Instead, it divided a single column into two narrower columns, listing only one item per line. This left much more white space on the page, making it easier for readers to navigate through the merchandise. Like Cowper and Telfairs, Johnson introduced his list with the phrase “Amongst which are,” indicating that the advertisement did not include an exhaustive inventory. Both carried additional items at their shops. Given that he carried additional medicines, Johnson made a calculated decision to truncate his list in order to make it easier to read. Compared to the dense format of everything else on the page, the layout of his list likely drew the eyes of colonial readers, increasing the likelihood that they would take note of his advertisement.
Both list-style advertisements had advantages and shortcomings inherent in their appearance on the page. Although eighteenth-century advertisements lack the dynamic graphic design elements of modern marketing efforts, advertisers and printers did experiment with different layouts in their efforts to attract attention and incite demand among potential customers.