What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
When Ephraim Smith, “an assigned Servant,” ran away from Dr. Eliot Rawson of Middletown in the summer of 1768, the doctor placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant in hopes that someone would “take up said Runaway, and secure him in any of his Majesty’s Goals.” Once Smith had been captured and committed to jail, Rawson pledged to pay a reward as well as other expenses. One aspect of Rawson’s advertisement especially distinguished it from other notices concerning runaway servants, apprentices, and slaves. The headline featured unique typography, the word “RUN-AWAY” in capital letters printed upside down.
Was this intentional? Or was it merely an error made by the compositor? If it was an error, nobody associated with the runaway notice – not the advertiser, not the compositor, not the printers of the Connecticut Courant – considered it consequential enough to remedy. The advertisement ran for three weeks, the standard time specified in rate structure listed in the colophon, before being discontinued. Throughout its entire run it likely attracted attention as a result of the upside down text that introduced the description of Smith and the reward offered by Rawson.
The compositor certainly had opportunities to correct the error. The advertisement first appeared in the July 11 edition, at the top of the center column and immediately below the masthead on the front page. It moved to different positions on the fourth page in the next two issues, indicating that the compositor viewed and handled the type.
Even if the headline initially appeared upside down as a mistake, perhaps everyone involved considered it a fortuitous one and intentionally chose not to reset the type in the first line of the advertisement. After all, it made Rawson’s notice difficult to miss on a page that consisted almost entirely of densely text. An advertisement for a runaway servant might not have merited a second glance by readers who had previously encountered it in another edition, but the incongruity of the upside down text in all capitals and a larger font demanded subsequent notice. It forcefully reminded readers to keep their eyes open for the delinquent Smith when they might otherwise have passed over the advertisement as old news.
Whether intentional or an error, the unique headline produced benefits that relied on the visual elements of the advertisement rather than the copy, making it unnecessary or undesirable to flip the headline to the proper orientation in subsequent iterations of the advertisement. Especially in the absence of visual images, typography played an important role in the quest to have readers take note of newspaper advertisements.