What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Choice Bohea, Souchon, and Hyson Tea.”
In the fall of 1771, Gilbert Deblois deployed graphic design to distinguish his newspaper advertisements from those placed by his competitors. On September 30, he ran an advertisement with a unique format in the Boston Evening-Post. The text ran upward at forty-five degree angles, creating an irregular diamond that filled the entire block of space he purchased in that issue. That same day, he ran an advertisement featuring the same copy arranged in another distinctive format in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette. The text once again formed a diamond, that one created by centering lines of text of progressively longer and then shorter lengths. In contrast to the advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post, this one incorporated a significant amount of white space into Deblois’s notice.
That these advertisements appeared simultaneously in two newspapers published in Boston demonstrated that Deblois carefully coordinated an advertising campaign intended to attract attention with its unusual typography. The compositors at the Boston Evening-Post and Boston-Gazette would not have independently decided to experiment with the format of Deblois’s advertisements. Instead, the shopkeeper must have worked with the compositors or at least sent instructions to the printing offices to express his wishes for innovative graphic design.
In most instances, advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to produce an appropriate format. Advertisements that ran in multiple newspapers often had variations in font size, capitalization, and italics according to the preference of the compositors, even as the copy remained consistent. On occasion, however, advertisers assumed greater control over the design of their notices, creating spectacles on the page. Both of Deblois’s notices demanded attention from readers because they deviated visually so significantly from anything else in the newspaper. Deblois did not have to commission a woodcut or include a variety of ornamental type in his notices in order for them to stand out from others. He achieved that by working with the compositors to determine what they could accomplish solely by arranging the text in unexpected ways.