What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD BY Jolley Allen.”
The graphic design elements of Jolley Allen’s advertisement did little to distinguish it from other notices in the February 22, 1768, edition of the Boston Post-Boy. It looked much the same as those placed by shopkeeper Gilbert Deblois and chairmaker Nathaniel Russell and others. That Allen’s advertisement followed the same format as others merits notice only because this deviated from the signature visual element that Allen previously incorporated into his advertisements: a decorative border composed of printing ornaments that enclosed the list of goods he offered for sale. Allen previously went to great lengths – and probably some expense – to have the compositors for multiple newspapers create borders that made his advertisements recognizable at just a glance. In the summer of 1766, for instance, his advertisements in four newspapers – the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette – all featured a decorative border. Readers familiar with his advertising in one publication would have readily identified his advertisements when they glimpsed them in others. Even when Allen discontinued the borders in his advertisements in 1767, he still incorporated distinctive visual elements in notices that appeared in multiple newspapers. He consistently strove to enhance the visibility of his advertisements via graphic design, a strategy not employed by the vast majority of advertisers who left it to compositors to determine the layout and other visual aspects of their advertisements.
Allen’s advertisement in the Boston Post-Boy was not an aberration. Neither his advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post on the same day or in the Massachusetts Gazette four days earlier had any distinctive visual effects. By that time he had been inserting these relatively plain advertisements in Boston’s newspapers for weeks. What prompted Allen to do this? His previous advertising campaigns had been innovative. They drew the eye and attracted attention. But had they been effective? Did Allen believe that they attracted enough customers to justify the additional effort and expense they required? He apparently still believed in the value of advertising in general or else he would not have continued to place notices in multiple newspapers in early 1768. Perhaps he could not longer justify the cost of advertisements that demanded special attention by the compositor. Note that even though he listed some of his goods he also stated that he stocked “too many to be enumerated in an Advertisement.” This particular advertisement was shorter than most others he previously published. Allen very well may have determined that he need to cut back on length and graphic design in order to afford advertising at all. His advertisements and the pages of several of Boston’s newspapers became much less visually interesting as a result.