What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“THOMAS SHIELDS … at the Golden Cup and Crown.”
When Thomas Shields, a goldsmith, advertised his services in the October 31, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he adorned his notice with a depiction of a crown suspended above a cup. That image corresponded to the sign that marked his location on Front Street in Philadelphia. It also helped to distinguish his advertisement from others in the same issue. Ten other notices incorporated images, but all of them featured woodcuts of vessels at sea. Each of those advertisements sought passengers and freight for ships preparing to leave the busy port.
The images of the ships belonged to David Hall and William Sellers, the printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Along with stock images of houses, horses, enslaved people, and indentured servants, colonial printers provided images of ships to advertisers. Those who desired more specialized images, on the other hand, commissioned them and retained ownership. That being the case, some advertisers used their woodcuts in one newspaper for a while before transferring them to another newspaper. At about the same time that Shields ran his advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, James Cunning, a shopkeeper “At the sign of the SPINNING WHEEL,” supplied his woodcut of a spinning wheel to two other newspapers, first the Pennsylvania Journal and then the Pennsylvania Packet. The notation at the end of Shields’s advertisement, “5 W,” indicated that he arranged for it to run for five weeks. After that, he could collect his woodcut from Hall and Sellers and transfer it to another printing office.
I regularly choose these unique images that adorned newspaper advertisements when I select notices to feature on the Adverts 250 Project. Relative to their numbers and frequency in the early American press, such images are overrepresented on this project, meriting a disclaimer that Shields’s advertisement and others with such images were not typical. They do, however, testify to what was possible in eighteenth-century advertising and the choices that advertisers made when it came to format, incurring additional expenses, and placing notices in multiple newspapers. In addition, the Adverts 250 Project has compiled an informal census of woodcuts that advertisers commissioned in the late 1760s and early 1770s. After nearly six years producing the Adverts 250 Project, I get the impression (though this needs to be tested against a more systematic accounting) that the frequency of such images accelerated in the early 1770s, a sign that greater numbers of advertisers embraced the additional expense if those woodcuts garnered greater attention for their newspaper notices.