What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Just imported by Joseph and William Russell.”
In the early 1770s, each edition of the Providence Gazette concluded with a colophon in which John Carter, the printer, solicited paid notices. “ADVERTISEMENTS of a moderate Length (accompanied with the Pay),” the colophon advised, “are inserted in this Paper three Weeks for Four Shillings.” That fee covered setting type the first time an advertisement ran and the space it occupied in three consecutive issues. Advertisers could also pay additional fees for their notices to make additional appearances.
Joseph Russell and William Russell, two of the city’s most prominent merchants, did not need the invitation in the colophon to prompt them to submit advertisements to Carter’s printing office. They regularly placed notices promoting a variety of commodities and consumer goods. Indeed, they advertised so frequently that sometimes they published new advertisements before older ones finished their runs. That was the case in the August 24, 1771 edition of the Providence Gazette. That issue featured two advertisements placed by the Russells, a new one on the third page and another that already appeared multiple times on the fourth page. That made them the only purveyors of goods with more than one advertisement in that issue, not the first time the merchants found themselves in that position.
Did advertising work? The Russells believed that it did. Otherwise, they would not have paid to publish advertisement after advertisement in the Providence Gazette. They also seem to have made some effort to draw attention to their advertisements by varying the formats rather than assuming that prospective customers would read them just because they appeared in the public prints. Deploying a particularly unusual format, their names, which served as a headline of sorts, appeared halfway through the advertisement on the third page of the August 24 edition. That distinguished their advertisement from others in the same issue. In their advertisements on the fourth page, the merchants divided their inventory into two columns instead of a single paragraph of dense text, making it easier for readers to peruse the contents. The Russells likely thought (or learned from experience) that advertising worked when designed with some creativity and variation.