What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Samuel Elbert HAS JUST IMPORTED … NEW-ENGLAND RUM in hogsheads and quarter casks.”
James Johnston rarely experimented with typography in the pages of the Georgia Gazette. Both news items and advertisements generally adhered to a uniform format that did little to distinguish one news item from another or one advertisement from another. Like other colonial printers, Johnston printed some words in italics or all capitals, presumably for emphasis, but those examples usually represented the extent of his playfulness with the type that appeared in his newspaper in the late 1760s. One exception regularly distinguished an advertisement that listed captured runaway slaves who were being held until slaveholders claimed them. The headline “Brought to the Work-house” appeared in a gothic font of the same size as the rest of the advertisement. Although Johnston possessed that font, he rarely deployed it elsewhere in the pages of the Georgia Gazette.
The February 22, 1769, edition, however, included several advertisements that incorporated the gothic font for the headline. One presented an enslaved woman “To be hired out.” While rare, that advertisement was not unique. The phrase “To be hired out” did not appear nearly as often as ever constant “Brought to the Work-house,” but Johnston was just as likely to set it with gothic type when inserting such an advertisement. This advertisement introduced some variation onto the page, but not anything that caught the eye nearly so well as two other advertisements with headlines in gothic font. One informed prospective customers that Samuel Elbert had just imported a variety of goods from Boston. Like many other advertisements for consumer goods, the merchant’s name served as the headline. Unlike others in the Georgia Gazette, his name was in gothic font much larger than the remainder of the advertising copy. The same was true of “Ugly Club” in a notice that advised members of an upcoming gathering.
While either Elbert or the officers of the club may have negotiated with the printer for a distinctive headline, it seems unlikely that both did so simultaneously. More likely Johnston decided to experiment with the tools available to him. After all in the previous issue he upended the usual layout of the Georgia Gazette by distributing the advertisements throughout rather than grouping them all on the final pages after the news items. He did so again in the February 22 issue, with advertisements appearing on every page. In setting type for Elbert’s advertisement, Johnston demonstrated what was possible when it came to the paid notices in his newspaper, even if not what was probable. The spark of innovation apparent in that advertisement eventually became a much more common element of advertisements published in the nineteenth century.