What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just imported … A LARGE assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”
All of the advertisements in the March 3, 1768, edition of William Rind’s Virginia Gazette included a unique visual feature: bold lines on either side of either side of the column. The advertisements, however, were not the only content that received this treatment. Throughout the entire issue, from the first page to the last, such lines separated all of the columns of news, essays, advertisements, and other items. Why?
These heavy lines were a typographical convention that expressed mourning. Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant governor of the Virginia colony who had served as acting governor in the absence of the Earl of Loudon and Jeffery Amherst for the past decade, died on March 3, 1768. Rind honored him by transforming the usual appearance of his newspaper. Readers knew at a glance that someone important had passed away. The announcement appeared on the second page, made even easier to locate because it was the only item in the entire issue that also had wide lines printed above and below. An outline composed of printing ornaments enclosed the announcement, further distinguishing it from the other content. Alexander Purdie and John Dixon also marked Fauquier’s death in their Virginia Gazette, though they restricted the typographical intervention to a box that enclosed the announcement. The visual aspects of the remainder of their newspaper did not deviate from standard practices. Still, their treatment of Fauquier was exceptional. Death notices for colonists regularly appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers, but only the most influential were demarcated in this manner.
Colonists sometimes adapted this convention for other purposes. The day before the Stamp Act went into effect, for instance, Benjamin Franklin and David Hall enclosed the first and last pages of the October 31, 1765, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette with dark and heavy lines as a symbol of mourning for the rights colonists lost at the hands of Parliament. A single news item on the third page received similar typographical treatment. It lamented “the most UNCONSTITUTIONAL ACT that ever these Colonies could have imagined, to wit, The STAMP ACT.”
Although Fauquier had dissolved the House of Burgesses when members passed several resolutions in opposition to the Stamp Act, he also gained a reputation for being sympathetic to the colonists and often advocated in their interests. Issues of both newspapers that bore the name Virginia Gazette that announced his death also included the eighth letter from John Dickinson’s series of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” The bold lines of mourning in Rind’s newspaper ran alongside this letter from “A FARMER.” As much as colonists mourned the loss of a popular acting governor, many likely also considered it appropriate that the typography of mourning extended to Dickinson’s essay about taxation without representation, not unlike Franklin and Hall’s treatment of the Stamp Act a few years earlier.