May 7

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 7 - 5:7:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 7, 1768).

“To be SOLD by JOSEPH AND Wm. RUSSELL.”

How much influence did eighteenth-century advertisers exert when it came to designing their advertisements? This notice placed by prolific advertisers Joseph Russell and William Russell complicates the usual answer to that question.

In most instances advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to determine format. The publication of the same advertisement in multiple newspapers with consistent copy but significant deviations in layout, font size, and other visual aspects testifies to the division between advertisers as copywriters and compositors as designers. Yet on relatively rare occasions some advertisements retained specific visual elements, such as a decorative border, across multiple publications, indicating that an advertiser did indeed have a hand in determining the format. In general, most colonial newspapers exhibited an internal logic when it came to the appearance of advertisements. Compositors tended to standardize the appearance of paid notices within their publication depending on genre (consumer goods and services, legal notices, runaway slaves, for example), even as the copy differed from advertisement to advertisement. Advertisers often resorted to formulaic language and accepted patterns for including information, contributing to that standardization of visual elements.

The advertisements in the Providence Gazette, however, displayed far less consistency when it came to graphic design. Compared to counterparts at other newspapers, the compositor seems to have been much more interested in experimenting with how to use type to create distinctive advertisements even when those advertisements were comprised entirely of text. Does the compositor deserve exclusive credit for such innovations? Or did the variations emerge as the result of consultations with advertisers?

Although the advertisement the Russells placed in the May 7, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette does not provide any definitive answers, its various elements suggest some level of collaboration. It featured a headline that listed a product rather than the names of the advertisers. Their names appeared at the end of the notice, quite unusual for advertisements that promoted consumer goods and services. The dual columns listing their wares differed from the structure of most, but not all, other advertisements recently published in that newspaper. The Russells may have worked closely with the compositor. Alternately, they may have noticed how the compositor experimented with type in previous issues of the Providence Gazette and decided to alter the copy they submitted in order to facilitate further innovations. Even if they did not directly consult the compositor, they may have been inspired to pursue their own experiment in composing copy to see how those advertisements would then appear in print. Whether initiated by compositors or advertisers, one innovation in the appearance of paid notices in the Providence Gazette may have sparked a series of other innovations that resulted in advertisements for consumer goods and services in that newspaper exhibiting greater distinctiveness among themselves compared to the static appearance of most advertisements published in other newspapers.

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