What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ENGLISH GOODS of all Sorts, At Francis Green’s Store, (Cheap).”
Purveyors of goods and services used a variety of design strategies in their efforts to get prospective customers to take note of their advertisements in the April 27, 1772, edition of the Boston Evening-Post. Some emphasized consumer choice by publishing advertisements that took up significant space by listing the merchandise they sold. Richard Jennys did so in a notice that was about as long as it was wide. He listed a couple of dozen items in a dense paragraph of text. Joseph Peirce also opted for a dense paragraph that enumerated his inventory, but his advertisement extended half a column. John Frazier and Margaret Philips both inserted paragraphs of moderate length, occupying more space on the page than Jennys but less than Peirce. The amount of text was part of the message.
Other merchants and shopkeepers who resorted to lists attempted to use graphic design to their benefit in a different way. They divided their advertisements into columns, listing only one or two items per line in order to make them easier for prospective customers to navigate. Since advertisers paid by the amount of space rather than the number of words, that meant they paid more to advertiser fewer items than their competitors who opted for paragraphs rather than columns, but they apparently considered it worth the investment. John Cunningham, Ward Nicholas Boylston, and Herman and Andrew Brimmer all ran advertisements that included dozens of items arranged in advertisements divided into two columns.
Other advertisers emphasized the visual aspects of their notices to an even greater degree. A woodcut depicting a mortar and pestle adorned Oliver Smith’s advertisement for “Drugs & Medicines” at his shop “At the GOLDEN MORTAR.” Duncan Ingraham, Jr. relied on typography rather than images, arranging a short list of goods to form a diamond. Joseph Barrell also created white space to draw attention by listing a few items on each line and centering them. His lines of varying lengths did not look nearly as crowded as the paragraphs in other advertisements. Francis Green limited his advertisement to ten words (“ENGLISH GOODS of all Sorts, At Francis Green’s Store, (Cheap)”), but deployed decorative type to form a border. That made his notice particularly distinctive since no other advertiser adopted that strategy. It also helped that his advertisement appeared in the middle of the page. The border likely drew readers’ eyes away from the advertisements on the outer edges in favor of the middle, at least when first perusing the page.
Graphic design in early American newspapers may appear unsophisticated by modern standards, but that does not mean that colonizers did not attempt to leverage graphic design in marketing goods and services. Within a single issue of the Boston Evening-Post, advertisers made a variety of choices about the visual aspects of their notices, some of them rather innovative for the period.