What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
In their capacity as the executors of the estate of Joseph Smith of North Providence, Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold placed an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. In it, they called on creditors to attend a meeting to settle accounts and announced an auction of the deceased’s real estate. The contents of their advertisement did not differ from other estate notices, but the headline set it apart, drawing attention with a proclamation of “Once more!” Eighteenth-century advertisements did not always consist of dense text crowded on the page.
This innovative headline most likely emerged via collaboration between the advertisers and the compositor, perhaps even accidentally. Many eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements did not feature headlines at all. Some treated the advertiser’s name as the headline or otherwise used typography to make it the central focus. The names “Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson” all served as headlines for advertisements, each in italics and a font the same size as “Once more!” In another advertisement, “Gideon Young” appeared in the middle, but in a significantly larger font. Other advertisements used text other than names as headlines. John Carter’s advertisement for an almanac deployed “A NEW EDITION” at the top. A real estate advertisement used “TO BE SOLD” and an advertisement for a runaway slave used “FIVE DOLLARS Reward.” Both were standard formulations when it came to introducing information to newspaper readers.
On the other hand, “Once more!” was different than anything else that usually appeared in the headlines of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements. Playful and quirky, it was a precursor to the advertisements that regularly appeared in American newspapers in the nineteenth century. Its departure from standard practices for headlines accompanying advertisements in the 1760s suggests that Olney and Arnold did not merely go through the motions of placing an announcement in the public prints. Instead, they devised copy intended to draw more attention than formulaic language would have garnered. The uniqueness of “Once more!” was calculated to arouse curiosity among readers. That it appeared in italics and larger font was most likely a fortunate accident, considering that the compositor gave other headlines the same treatment. (Recall Darius Sessions,” “Samuel Black,” and “J. Mathewson.”) Still, it signaled the possibilities of combining clever copy with unconventional typography, a strategy that subsequent generations of advertisers and compositors would explore much more extensively.