What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“L / Leather dog collars / [Leather] Bottle stands.”
Several merchants, shopkeepers, and other entrepreneurs included lengthy lists of their merchandise in the November 9, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Richard Sause, a cutler, listed scores of items in a dense advertisement that consisted of a single paragraph. William Neilson did as well. John Morton resorted to two dense paragraphs, a longer one for his general merchandise and a shorter one with a headline, “CHINA,” to direct prospective customers to those items.
In contrast, other advertisers attempted to make it easier for readers to navigate their notices and spot items of interest by dividing their advertisements into two columns with only one item per line. Shaw and Long published a short advertisement for wine, beer, spirits, tea, and groceries that featured two columns. Robert G. Livingston, Jr., stocked all sorts of textiles and housewares, neatly arranged in two columns in a lengthy advertisement. Similarly, William Prince, a gardener, listed a “large collection of Fruit Trees” as well as “Timber trees and flowering shrubs” in an advertisement that extended an entire column. He included headers for various kinds of trees, ranging from “Apricots” to “Pears” to “Apples.” Prince also gave prices for some of his trees.
Among those advertisements, William Bayley experimented with another method of making his merchandise accessible to prospective customers. In addition to using two columns with one item per line, the merchant also alphabetized his wares. In 1772, that approach was rather extraordinary. Booksellers occasionally took that approach in their newspaper notices and book catalogs, but not always. Merchants, shopkeepers, and others beyond the book trades, however, did not alphabetize their wares, making Bayley’s approach innovative.
Bayley inserted headers for each category, starting with “B” for “BATH stove grates” and “Brass ditto.” (Advertisers often saved space by deploying ditto. Readers knew that Bayley meant “Brass stove grates” as an alternative to “BATH stove grates.”) He concluded with “W” for “Wire fenders,” the only item under that letter. Bayley did not strictly adhere to alphabetization under the various headers. For instance, “Copper sauce pans” appeared under “C” before “Cases with silver handle knives and forks.” The various “Brass” and “Japan’d” items also appeared in groups but not alphabetized. “Brass headed shovels & tongs” ran above “— Dog collars” and “Japan’d tea tables” ran above “Plate Warmers.” Each category was short enough that Bayley likely did not consider it necessary to be rigid about alphabetizing the items under each header.
Bayley devised a format that made his advertisement more readable for consumers while also directing them to similar and related items. He may not have been the first to introduce readers to an alphabetized list of general merchandise, but few advertisers had used that method when Bayley experimented with it in 1772. Even if prospective customers did not require the aid of alphabetization in advertisements, Bayley still delivered a format that differentiated his newspaper notice from others, perhaps making it memorable as a result.