What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Like printers in other towns and cities in the colonies, Samuel Hall sought to generate revenue by taking advantage of his access to the press to promote his own enterprises in the Essex Gazette. In addition to publishing a newspaper, Hall also produced “BLANKS” at his printing office in Salem. Colonists used blanks (or printed forms, as they would be described today) for a variety of common commercial and legal purposes. They saved significant time compared to writing out the same transaction repeatedly. In some instances, resorting to blanks allowed colonists to sidestep hiring a conveyancer or lawyer to draw up documents.
Most printers simply announced that they stocked blanks of all sorts at their printing offices. On occasion, however, some printers listed the different kinds of blanks, providing a better glimpse of how purchasing them could increase efficiency and streamline all variety of transactions. In his advertisement, Hall listed sixteen different blanks for purposes that ranged from “Apprentices Indentures” to “Bills of Lading” to “Short Powers of Attorney.”
Through his typographical choices, he made sure that readers of the Essex Gazette would notice his advertisement. Many eighteenth-century advertisements that listed goods for sale, especially those that ran in the Essex Gazette in the late 1760s, clustered the items together in dense paragraphs. Hall’s advertisement, on the other hand, listed only one type of blank per line, making it easier to read and identify forms of particular interest. Hall also selected a larger font for his advertisement than appeared throughout the rest of that edition of the Essex Gazette. His notice occupied nearly twice as much space as any other in the same issue. The combination of white space incorporated into Hall’s advertisement and the oversized type made it one of the most striking items on a page that included both news and paid notices. Another advertisement featured a woodcut depicting a ship at sea, but it appeared immediately above Hall’s advertisement for blanks, leading directly into it.
Hall promoted other aspects of his business in the Essex Gazette, hoping to generate revenue beyond subscriptions and advertising fees. In the process, he effectively used graphic design to draw attention to other products from his printing office, an array of blanks for commercial and legal purposes. His access to the press gave him opportunities to experiment with the format of his own advertisements to an extent not available to other colonists.