What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Horn combs, and ivory fine teeth’d ditto.”
Nicholas Bogart sold an assortment of goods at his shop “In the Broad-Way” in New York. He listed many of them in an advertisement that ran in the April 26, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal. His inventory included “Worsted and leather womens mits,” “Broad-cloths of various colours and prices,” “A variety of Dutch books for teaching children,” and “Knee garters, various colours.” He stocked and sold such an array of merchandise that it demanded cataloging in detail in order for prospective customers to realize the full extent.
Yet Bogart did not merely list his wares. He deployed rudimentary graphic design principles to make them easier for readers to peruse, dividing his advertisement into two columns and mentioning only one, two, or three items on each line. When more than one item appeared on a line, they were all related to each other. When a category of items overflowed onto the next line, the second line was usually indented. In comparison, most merchants and shopkeepers who enumerated dozens of items did so in dense paragraphs. Such was the case in James Beekman’s advertisement on the same page as Bogart’s notice. Beekman included a similar number of items, but clustered them together in a manner that required more effort to read. As a result, Beekman’s advertisement took up only about half the space of Bogart’s. According to the colophon at the bottom of the page, advertisers paid by the amount of space that their notices occupied, not by the number of words. That meant that Bogart paid twice as much as Beekman even though they listed a similar number of items.
Bogart was not alone in incorporating columns into his advertisement. Immediately above Bogart’s notice, John Keating also used columns. Elsewhere in the same issue, Abeel and Byvanck used columns to organize their “considerable Assortment of Ironmongery and Cutlery.” Advertisers knew that this option was available to them on request, though the dense paragraph was the default format. The more attractive option required a greater investment, but some advertisers apparently believed they would benefit from a greater return on that investment if they made it easier for prospective customers to engage with the extensive lists of merchandise they published in newspaper notices.