What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TEA … West-India and New-England RUM … handsome colour’d WILTONS.”
Thomas Martin advertised an assortment of goods available at his store in Portsmouth in the July 27, 1770, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. He listed everything from coffee, tea, and sugar to hammers, nails, and files to handkerchiefs, stockings, and shoes. His inventory was so extensive that his advertisement filled half a column and still concluded with “&c. &c.” to indicate that he did not have space to include everything consumers could find at his store. (Colonists used “&c.” as an abbreviation for et cetera.)
Like many other advertisements of the era, Martin’s notice looked like a dense block of text. To modern readers, this has little visual appeal, but Martin likely focused on other aspects of the advertisement in his efforts to market his wares. In particular, he may have expected the length to attract the attention of prospective customers. Few advertisements for consumer goods and services in the New-Hampshire Gazette occupied so much space. Martin borrowed a strategy from advertisers in larger port cities where newspapers much more often ran such lengthy advertisements for consumer goods. The long list of goods communicated the variety and consumer choice that Martin offered his customers. They could acquire all sorts of grocery items, hardware, housewares, clothing, and accessories during a single visit to Martin’s store, combining choice and convenience.
Despite the density of the prose, Martin did deploy a couple of visual elements to aid readers in navigating his advertisement. At various points he inserted lengthy dashes to break what otherwise would have been an undifferentiated paragraph into smaller pieces. He also capitalized two words to draw attention to those products: “West-India and New-England RUM” and “handsome colour’d WILTONS,” a popular kind of carpet. (“TEA” was also capitalized, but that was standard for the first item listed in advertisements of this sort.) While Martin did not make elaborate use of typography to lend visual appeal to his advertisement, he did not overlook using it entirely. His advertisement incorporated more variation than the news articles that appeared elsewhere in the same issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette. The effectiveness of Martin’s advertisement should be considered in relation to other items, both advertisements and news items, that it ran alongside.