What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Sign of the Bell and Looking-glass.”
Logos are ubiquitous in twenty-first century marketing campaigns, but the modern advertising industry did not invent the concept of branding. Some advertisers experimented with developing readily recognized logos even before the American Revolution. Consider, for instance, John Elliott and the newspaper advertisements he placed in the fall of 1768.
Elliott ran a “Looking-glass store” at “the sign of the Bell and Looking-glass” on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. He also operated a second location “at the Three Brushes, in Second-street.” Both shop signs helped customers located Elliott’s shops, but it was the “Bell and Looking-glass” that he chose as the primary visual representation of his business. In addition to a shop sign that depicted these icons, Elliott also commissioned woodcuts of a looking glass and a bell enclosed within a frame to adorn his newspapers advertisements. These images appeared in both the Pennsylvania Journal and the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Gazette on October 20, 1768. To have an image run in two newspapers simultaneously amounted to a significant investment for Elliott, but it also demonstrated his commitment to consistency in portraying his business to prospective customers.
Other advertisers who experimented with visual images replicating their shop signs usually commissioned a single woodcut that they then ran in one newspaper for a period and eventually inserted in another, thus cementing the association by communicating it to multiple, yet sometimes overlapping, audiences. Gerardus Duyckinck, for instance, had an elaborate woodcut depicting “the Sign of the Looking Glass & Druggist Pot” that ran first in the New-York Journal for several weeks and then in the New-York Gazette: Or, the Weekly Mercury. The cost of replicating the rococo frame that enclosed his list of merchandise likely prohibited commissioning a second woodcut, so Duyckinck did his best to circulate the image by staggering its appearance in newspapers published in New York.
When it came to publishing woodcuts in more than one newspaper simultaneously, Elliott was not alone. Earlier in 1768 Burrows Dowdney, a clock- and watchmaker, included woodcuts depicting clocks in his advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Those images did not, however, mirror each other as closely as Elliott’s exceptionally similar (but not identical) woodcuts in the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal, nor did Dowdney explicitly associate his woodcuts with his shop sign. They certainly represented the work Dowdney did, but he did not indicate that a sign marked his shop at all. In that regard Elliott was particularly innovative in his careful consistency when it came to linking a name and a corresponding image in his efforts to promote his business.
In the second half of the eighteenth century many advertisers experimented with establishing logos to represent their businesses. Although not as fully developed as modern marketing campaigns, these early efforts demonstrated a rudimentary understanding of the power of images to depict commercial endeavors and to augment recognition of particular businesses among prospective customers.