What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“New Philadelphia FLOUR.”
“New Philadelphia FLOUR.”
John Head’s advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette demonstrate the relationship between advertisers and compositors in the eighteenth century. Advertisers composed the copy for their notices. Compositors generally designed the format, though advertisers occasionally collaborated on specific elements they wanted incorporated into their advertisements. For his advertisements, Head submitted the copy and almost certainly specified that he wished for the list of goods to appear in columns, but the compositors for the Evening-Post and the Gazette made their own decisions about the font size, capitalization, italics, and the layout of the columns.
At a glance, the two advertisements appear remarkably similar, but on closer examination it becomes clear that even though they featured nearly identical copy they also had significant variations in design. Only two discrepancies in copy distinguish the advertisements from each other, one of them the result of a design decision made by a compositor. In the first discrepancy, the Gazette version lists “Jamaica Spirit” among Head’s inventory; the Evening-Post version has “Jamaica Fish” instead. Either Head miscopied from one to the other or a compositor made an error. For the second discrepancy, the compositor for the Gazette made a decision to list “Best green Coffee” on the line after “Cocoa,” reversing the order of the items in order to accommodate an oversized “N” in “NEW Rice” that adorned the first item listed. That “N” made it impossible to fit “Best green Coffee” on the second line, but the much shorter “Cocoa” fit just fine.
Those lists of merchandise provide perhaps the most visible evidence of the different decisions made by the compositors. The Evening-Post version featured only two columns, but the Gazette version had three. Other differences in capitalization and italics appeared throughout the advertisements. Consider just the first three lines: “New Philadelphia FLOUR, / To be Sold by / John Head” in the Evening-Post and “New Philadelphia FLOUR, / TO BE SOLD BY / John Head” in the Gazette. The first used few capitals and no italics, but the second incorporated italics and many more capitals. The short paragraph at the end of the advertisement also received different treatment from the compositors. The version in the Evening-Post appeared mostly in italics, introduced with a manicule. The version in the Gazette did not appear in italics. An assortment of lesser-used type called attention to it.
In an era without professional advertising agencies, Head assumed responsibility for generating the copy for his advertisement. He also gave directions concerning an element of its layout, organizing the list of merchandise into columns, but the printing office, the compositor in particular, was primarily responsible for graphic design. Like Head, other advertisers ran notices in multiple newspapers in colonial America. Comparing copy and format in those other advertisements further confirms the relationship between advertisers and compositors.