What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Two days after their advertisement for “A LARGE AND COMPLEAT ASSORTMENT OF EUROPEAN GOODS” dominated the front page of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, Webb and Doughty inserted the same advertisement in the December 1, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette. The advertisements featured identical copy but variations in typography. The most significant aspect of the advertisement’s format, however, carried over from one newspaper to the other. Webb and Doughty’s advertisement spanned two columns, distinguishing it from all others on the same page.
For most eighteenth-century newspaper notices the advertiser wrote the copy but the compositor determined the format. Some advertisers placed the same notice, at least as far as the copy was concerned, in multiple newspapers, but those notices varied in appearance as the result of decisions made by compositors. Advertisements that retained particular features across multiple publications, such as the decorative border that enclosed Jolley Allen’s advertisements, testify to explicit instructions given by advertisers. Most advertisers seemed content to entrust the graphic design to the printing office, but it was possible for advertisers to exert more control over the appearance of notices they paid to insert in colonial newspapers.
It appears that Webb and Doughty did offer instructions to the compositors at the South-Carolina Gazette and the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. It seems unlikely that the two would have independently made the same decision to create advertisements that spanned two columns. (Unfortunately, Webb and Doughty did not place the same advertisement in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Perhaps they tried but the printer rejected any special instructions.) The compositors still exercised the discretion to make other decisions about the format of Webb and Doughty’s advertisement. The list of goods appeared as a paragraph in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, but as three narrow columns in the South-Carolina Gazette. The names of the merchants appeared in the largest font in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, but “EUROPEAN GOODS” appeared as the most prominent headline in the South-Carolina Gazette.
Although Webb and Doughty’s advertisement was the only one that spanned two columns on its page, two notices on the front page also spanned two columns. One for “SALES by the Provost-Marshal” was a somewhat regular feature. The headline enclosed in a decorative border occasionally graced advertisements of various lengths. The other, an advertisement for “A COMPLEAT ASSORTMENT OF GOODS” placed by Mansell, Corbett, and Roberts,” had the same format as Webb and Doughty’s advertisement. It spanned two columns. The list of goods was organized into three columns. What explains its appearance? Did Mansell, Corbett, and Roberts see Webb and Doughty’s advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal and choose to adopt its format themselves? Or did the compositor at the South-Carolina Gazette decide to experiment with that format in other advertisements of sufficient length?