What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A fresh assortment of GARDEN SEEDS, pease, beans and flower-roots.”
James McCall stocked and sold a variety of imported merchandise “at his store in Tradd-street” in Charleston. Like many other merchants and shopkeepers, he attempted to incited demand for his wares by placing an advertisement that listed many of them in a dense paragraph, everything from “neat Wilton carpeting” to “shot of all sizes” to “coffee and chocolate.” His inventory included groceries, clothing, housewares, and much more.
For the most part McCall did not make special efforts to promote any particular items, with one exception. Deploying typography strategically, he did draw attention to his “fresh assortment of GARDEN SEEDS, pease, beans and flower-roots.” Very few words in his advertisement appeared in all capital letters; most of those that did were names: his own name that served as a headline, the name of the ship and captain that transported the goods, and the name of the English port of departure. In the main body of the advertisement, the list of items for sale, the first word appeared in all capitals, as was the convention for all advertisements in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Otherwise, the words “GARDEN SEEDS” about midway through the list of goods were the only words in all capitals in the body of McCall’s notice.
Although advertisers usually wrote copy and left it to compositors to determine the graphic design elements of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, deviations from the standard appearance of notices within particular publications suggest that advertisers could and did sometimes request specific typography for certain aspects of their notices. Such appears to have been the case for McCall’s advertisement since the compositor would have had little reason to randomly set “GARDEN SEEDS” in all capitals. On the other hand, McCall had particular interest in drawing attention to such seasonal merchandise. In other advertisements, he developed a habit for singling out a specific item to promote to prospective customers. For instance, the previous August he included “CHOICE DOUBLE GLOSTER CHEESE” in a list-style advertisement that did not feature any other items in all capitals.
McCall could have chosen to highlight these items by listing them first or writing a separate nota bene to append to his advertisements. Instead, he opted to experiment with variations in typography to accentuate his “GARDEN SEEDS” and “CHOICE DOUBLE GLOSTER CHEESE.” Although rudimentary compared to modern understandings of graphic design, his choices indicate some level of understanding that the appearance on the page could be just as effective as the copy when it came to delivering advertising content to consumers.