What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves.”
In the fall of 1772, George Webster joined the ranks of advertisers who attempted to draw more attention to their newspaper notices by adorning them with images related to their businesses. Webster, a grocer, kept shop “at the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves” on Leary Street in New York. A woodcut at the top of his advertisement depicted three sugar loaves, a tall one flanked by two shorter ones. The border that surrounded the sugar loaves suggested that the image replicated the sign that marked Webster’s location.
Throughout the colonies, entrepreneurs who placed notices in the public prints sometimes incorporated such images, but the use of images in advertising was not a standard practice in the eighteenth century. When Webster first used his woodcut in the October 22, 1772, edition of the New-York Journal, it was one of only three images in the entire issue. As usual, the lion and unicorn appeared on either side of a crown and shield in the masthead on the front page. Elsewhere in the issue, Nesbitt Deane’s image of a tricorn hat and a banner bearing his name once again took up as much space as the copy it introduced. The remainder of the advertisements, dozens of them filling fourteen of the eighteen columns in the six-page edition, did not have images. That made Webster’s new woodcut depicting the Sign of the Three Sugar Loaves all the more noteworthy. The following week, his image appeared once again, this time alongside two advertisements that featured stock images provided by the printer, a ship and a horse. Neither of those familiar images had been crested for the exclusive use of any particular advertisers. Webster, like Deane, made an additional investment in commissioning a woodcut so closely associated with some aspect of his own business.
By the time that the image appeared in Webster’s advertisement on November 5, regular readers would have recognized it, but that does not necessarily mean that the novelty had dissipated. The woodcut continued to distinguish the grocer’s notice from the dozens of others in that issue. Its mere presence demanded attention on a page that lacked other images in a newspaper with only four other images distributed across all six pages. It likely also helped to encourage brand recognition as both image and text in Webster’s newspaper advertisement corresponded to the sign that colonizers glimpsed when they visited or passed his shop.