What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Compleat Assortment of MEDICINES.”
Lewis Johnson’s advertisements for medicines became a familiar sight in the Georgia Gazette in the late 1760s. Several qualities made them particularly notable, including their length, their unique format, and Johnson’s name in large gothic font as a headline. His advertisement in the October 4, 1769, edition included all of these attributes.
The compositor distributed gothic font throughout the issue, but sparingly. On the final page, four legal notices commenced by naming the colony. “Georgia” appeared in gothic font the same size as the rest of the copy in those advertisements. Another paid notice seeking overseers to manage a rice planation used “Wanted Immediately” in gothic font as a headline. The final advertisement on that page as well as another on the third page described enslaved people “Brought to the Workhouse.” That phrase in gothic type served as a standard headline for such advertisements in the Georgia Gazette, making them recognizable at a glance. One more notice, also on the third page with Johnson’s advertisement, described a house “To be Let” with that phrase in gothic font as the headline. In each instance of gothic font in the issue, it appeared in the same size as the copy for the rest of the advertisement, except for Johnson’s name. It ran in a much larger font, one larger than anything else in the newspaper except its title in the masthead. This created a striking headline that would have been difficult for readers to miss.
The length of Johnson’s advertisement also made it impossible to overlook. Listing dozens of medicines available at the apothecary’s shop, it extended two-thirds of a column. The entire issue consisted of only four pages of two columns each. Johnson’s advertisement was significantly longer than any other paid notice. It rivaled in length even the longest of news items, occupying a substantial amount of space in the issue. Considering that colonial printers charged by the amount of space rather than the number of words, Johnson’s advertisement represented a considerable investment.
Finally, the apothecary deployed unique typography that made it easier for prospective customers to read his advertisement than many others that listed their wares in dense blocks of text. Divided into three columns, his advertisement named only one item per line. Johnson did not always divide his advertisements into columns, but he
did so fairly regularly. Usually, however, he resorted to only two columns. This advertisement featured three, a graphic design decision that reduced the amount of space it occupied on the page while simultaneously introducing an innovative format that rarely appeared in advertisements in any colonial newspaper.
Johnson incorporated three visual elements that made his advertisement noteworthy and more likely to attract the attention of prospective customers. His name in large gothic font as a headline, the extraordinary length, and dividing it into three columns each on their own would have distinguished his advertisement from others in the Georgia Gazette. Combining them into a single advertisement made it even more unique. The various graphic design elements demanded that readers take notice.