What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Promises in some pompous Advertisements.”
John Cabot and Andrew Cabot operated a shop in Beverly, Massachusetts, in the early 1770s. They took to the pages of Essex Gazette in December 1771 to promote an “Elegant Assortment of English and India GOODs.” They boldly proclaimed that they offered the best prices in the region, “determined … to give undoubted Satisfaction to every Purchaser, and at as low a Rate, if not lower, than at any Store in BOSTON or SALEM, notwithstanding the Promises in some pompous Advertisements.” The Cabots critiqued their competitors as they made their own “pompous” claim about their prices.
Such commentary may have captured the attention of prospective customers, but it was like the format of the advertisement that drew their attention in the first place. The copy ran upward diagonally, forming a diamond that filled the traditional square of space that advertisers purchased. One or two words appeared on the first lines. The number of words and length of each line increased with each line until the line that extended from the lower left corner of the advertisement to the upper right corner, then decreased with each line.
The format was novel in the Essex Gazette, but that does not mean that it was unfamiliar to readers or to the Cabots. Two months earlier, Gilbert Deblois, a shopkeeper in Boston, similarly experimented with the design of his advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. The Cabots likely saw Deblois’s advertisement. After all, they commented on the content of advertisements placed by merchants and shopkeepers in both Boston and Salem. Perhaps they even clipped the advertisement or submitted an issue of the Boston Evening-Post with their copy and instructions for the compositor to replicate the format of Deblois’s unique notice. They likely had to pay more than the three shillings that Samuel Hall usually charged for advertisements “not exceeding eight or ten Lines,” but they may have considered it well worth the investment to create an advertisement practically guaranteed to attract notice from prospective customers.