June 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Spy (June 11, 1772).

“The Particulars too numerous for an Advertisement.”

Thanks to a signature design element, a border comprised of decorative type, readers easily spotted Jolley Allen’s advertisements in several newspapers published in Boston in late spring in 1772.  The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, for instance, carried his advertisement with its distinctive border on June 11.  Three days earlier, the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy featured Allen’s advertisement, complete with the border.  On June 1, the Boston Evening-Post did so as well.

On the same day that the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter carried Allen’s advertisement, it also ran in the Massachusetts Spy.  That completed Allen’s efforts to disseminate his notice as widely as possible by inserting it in all five newspapers printed in Boston at the time.  Yet the version in the Massachusetts Spy differed in format, though not in copy, from Allen’s advertisements in the other four newspapers.  No border enclosed the shopkeeper’s pronouncement that he “determined on an entire New Plan” for selling “His WHOLE Stock in Trade … at very little more than the Sterling cost and charges.”

Other design elements replicated Allen’s advertisements in the other newspapers.  For instance, the compositor centered the copy of the first portion, creating distinctive white space that helped draw attention to the notice, before resorting to a dense block of text that went to the left and right margins for the final portion.  Allen most likely requested a border when he submitted the copy to the printing office.  After all, he made an effort to make a consistent visual presentation throughout the other newspapers that carried his advertisement.  The compositor for the Massachusetts Spy allowed for some distinctiveness in the format of the notice, but apparently considered incorporating a border too much of a deviation.

The Massachusetts Spy already included borders comprised of thin lines around all advertisements, the only newspaper printed in Boston at the time to do so.  Perhaps the compositor exercised judgment in determining that a border within a border would appear too crowded, overruling instructions or preferences expressed by the advertiser.  This example hints at the conversations about graphic design that may have taken place between advertisers and those who worked in printing offices in early America.  How extensively did printers, compositors, and advertisers consult each other about the format of newspaper notices that customers paid to insert?

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