What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be Sold by OLIVER SMITH, at the Golden Mortar.”
Oliver Smith, an apothecary, promoted a variety of remedies in an advertisement in the September 19, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. The headline proclaimed “Best double-distilled Lavender Water,” introducing the merchandise before naming the seller. Several other advertisements featured the same structure, including one for “Choice Cheshire CHEESE” placed by Ellis Gray and another for “THE very best of fresh Orange JUICE” from John Crosby. Most purveyors of goods and services, on the other hand, used their names as headlines for their advertisements, including Caleb Blanchard, William Jackson, John Langdon, Henry Lloyd, and Jonathan Trott. Thomas Walley adopted both methods. “Teneriff Wine” appeared as the first headline and then his name as a second one.
Smith’s headline helped to distinguish his notice from others, but another element of the advertisement did so even more effectively. A woodcut depicting a mortar and pestle appeared in the upper left corner, drawing the eye of readers. Except for the lion and unicorn in the masthead at the top of the first page, Smith’s woodcut was the only image in that issue and the supplement that accompanied it. Further enhancing the apothecary’s marketing efforts, the woodcut corresponded to the sign that marked the location of his shop. He advised prospective customers that they could purchase a variety of nostrums “at the Golden Mortar” on Cornhill. Other advertisers mentioned shop signs, but did not commission woodcuts to adorn their notices. Crosby, for instance, regularly advertised citrus fruit “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons” in the South End, but he did not include an illustration.
Advertisers typically paid for the amount of space their notice occupied, not the number of words. In that regard, Smith and Crosby made similar investments in marketing their wares in the September 19 edition. Smith, however, incurred additional expense for the woodcut, an investment that he presumably believed would pay for itself by resulting in more attention and more customers.