What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A very large Assortment of Winter Goods.”
Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers consisted text unadorned with images, though some did feature woodcuts depicting ships, houses, enslaved people, horses, or, even less frequently, shop signs. Despite the lack of images, advertisers and compositors sometimes experimented with graphic design in order to draw attention to newspaper notices. Some of those efforts were rather rudimentary. In the September 30, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, Hopestill Capen’s name served as the headline for his advertisement. That was not unusual, but the size of the font was. Larger than the names of any other merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in that issue, the size of Capen’s name demanded attention for his advertisement. Thomas Lee pursued a similar strategy with a headline proclaiming “SILKS” in a large font.
Capen and Lee may or may not have consulted with the printer or compositor about those elements of their advertisements. They may have submitted the copy and left the design to the compositor. Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, almost certainly gave instructions or even spoke with the compositor concerning the unique format of his advertisement. The text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle, distinguishing it from anything else that appeared in the pages of the Boston Evening-Post. Deblois hawked a “very large Assortment of Winter Goods, with every other Kind imported from Great-Britain.” In so doing, he used formulaic language that appeared in countless other advertisements in the 1760s and early 1770s. Yet he devised a way to make his message more interesting and noticeable. That likely required a greater investment on his part. Advertisers usually paid for the amount of space their notices occupied, not by the word, but in this case setting type at an angle required extraordinary work on the part of the compositor. Reorienting Deblois’s advertisement was not merely a matter of selecting a larger font, incorporating more white space, or including ornamental type for visual interest.
Deblois carried many of the same goods as Capen, Caleb Blanchard, and Nathan Frazier, all of them competitors who placed much longer advertisements listing the many items among their merchandise. Rather than confront consumers with the many choices available to them at his shop, Deblois instead opted to incite interest for his “large Assortment of Winter Good” using graphic design to draw attention to his advertising copy. The unique format of his advertisement made it stand out among the dozens that appeared in that issue of the Boston Evening-Post.