What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Now Selling very Cheap.”
In the decades prior to the American Revolution, purveyors of goods and services regularly incorporated appeals to price into their advertisements. They did so often enough, in fact, that many delivered appeals to price in standardized or formulaic language in their newspaper notices. In the July 29, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, for instance, Joseph Gardener informed prospective customers that he sold a variety of textiles “at the very lowest Rates” and “upon the most reasonable Terms.” Those phrases frequently appeared in the introductions and conclusions to advertisements, before and after lists of goods that demonstrated the choices available to consumers.
Some advertisers, on the other hand, experimented with other means of enticing customers with low prices. The proprietors of the “Staffordshire and Liverpool Warehouse in King-Street” stocked a “General Assortment of Ironmongery, Braziery and Cutlery Ware.” To attract attention, they made their appeal to price the headline for the entire advertisement: “Now Selling very Cheap.” Near the end of the advertisement, the proprietors also stated that their inventory “will be Sold much lower than those Articles are usually Sold in this place.”
The headline appeared in the largest font and preceded everything else in the advertisement. Other headlines tended to focus on the advertiser or the merchandise. For instance, “Joshua Gardner” appeared in the largest font in that advertisement, as did “Richard Clarke & Son” in an advertisement for tea, spices, and other groceries. Another advertisement bore a headline proclaiming “IRISH LINNENS” for sale at Bethune and Prince’s store. On the same page, the headline for Joseph Mann’s advertisement drew attention to the “CHOCOLATE” he ground and sold. Another advertisement for a stolen anchor demanded inspection with a headline that promised “Eight Dollars Reward.”
The proprietors of the Staffordshire and Liverpool Warehouse recognized an opportunity to deviate from the usual practices concerning headlines in newspaper advertisements. They made low prices the focal point of their notice with a headline, attempting to hook readers with that appeal and encourage them to examine the rest of the advertisement in greater detail. Even when advertisements consisted entirely of text without images, advertisers and printers experimented with graphic design to deliver messages to consumers.