What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“An Elegant Assortment of English and India GOODS.”
John Cabot and Andrew Cabot sought to use typography to their advantage when they advertised in the Essex Gazette in December 1771. They began with a notice in the December 3 edition, one that likely attracted attention because the copy was arranged to form a diamond. The text ran upward diagonally with the longest line extending from the lower left corner to the upper right corner.
Two weeks later, they placed another advertisement that once again played with graphic design. It featured the same copy as the previous advertisement, but this time the compositor created a different shape. Not quite a diamond, it resembled a bulb. The names of the advertisers filled most of the upper portion, helping to draw the eyes of the readers, but the white space in each of the corners also distinguished this advertisement from others on the page.
Except for the masthead on the front page, this edition of the Essex Gazette did not feature any images. None of the advertisers opted to adorn their notices with woodcuts, yet the Cabots were not alone in their efforts to deploy typography to make their advertisement more conspicuous. Nathaniel Sparhawk’s advertisement included a list of goods available at his store, divided into two columns, but it did not consist entirely of text. Printing ornaments ran down the center, separating the columns. Such visual appeal differentiated that advertisement from one with a similar format, but no decorative type, placed by John Gould and Company.
In most cases, advertisers submitted copy and compositors made decisions about format, but for these advertisements it seems almost certain that Sparhawk and, especially, the Cabots issued instructions or otherwise participated in developing the designs for their notices. As they competed for customers with others who advertised similar goods, they likely hoped that savvy graphic design would prompt prospective customers to look more closely at their advertisements.