What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the GOLDEN MORTAR … A compleat and fresh Assortment of Drugs & Medicines.”
Very few images appeared in the April 6, 1772, edition of the Boston Evening-Post. The masthead ran on the first page, as usual, featuring a cartouche with an ornate border enclosing an image of a crown suspended over a heart. Immediately below, the colophon stated that the newspaper was “Printed by THOMAS and JOHN FLEET, at the HEART and CROWN in Cornhill.” Readers encountered only two other images in that issue, both of them adorning advertisements on the second page. A woodcut depicting a ship at sea embellished a notice that announced the London would soon sail for London. It helped draw attention to instructions for anyone interested in “Freight or Passage [to] apply to the Captain on board, or to Nath. Wheatley’s Store in King-Street.”
That woodcut belonged to the printers, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet. The woodcut that accompanied Oliver Smith’s advertisement, however, did not. It depicted a mortar and pestle, replicating Smith’s shop sign, “the GOLDEN MORTAR,” in the same way the image in the masthead represented the sign that marked the Fleets’ printing office. The Fleets and other printers supplied a small number of woodcuts – ships at sea, houses, horses, enslaved people – for eighteenth-century advertisers to include in their newspaper notices. If advertisers wished for specialized images associated exclusively with their businesses, they commissioned the woodcuts and provided them to the printers. That also meant they could retrieve their woodcuts from one printing office and submit them to another.
Smith did so in the early 1770s. His woodcut depicting a mortar and pestle enhanced an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter in the fall of 1771. More than half a year later, the same woodcut appeared in an advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post. Not only did Smith attempt to widen his share of the market for “Drugs & Medicines” in Boston by advertising in multiple newspapers, he also sought to increase the visibility of the device associated with his shop. The “GOLDEN MORTAR” served as a rudimentary trademark or brand that made his advertisements and his shop easy for consumers to identify.