February 16

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

Essex Gazette (February 16, 1773).

“Any who favour him with their Custom, may depend upon being well served.”

The decorative border that enclosed Stephen Higginson’s advertisement for a “large & general Assortment of English and India GOODS” in the February 16, 1773, edition of the Essex Gazette distinguished it from all of the other advertisements … except for one.  John Appleton’s advertisement for “as large an Assortment of English Goods as any in this Town” also featured a border made of ornamental type.

Such borders did not appear in the Essex Gazette with the same frequency that they did in several of the newspapers published in Boston.  In the summer and fall of 1772, several advertisers took an interest in enhancing their advertisements in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter with borders.  Among the newspapers published in the city, only the Massachusetts Spy seemed to reject that design element.

Given the proximity of Boston to Salem as well as the circulation of newspapers far beyond their places of publication during the era of the American Revolution, Higginson and, especially, Appleton may have noticed advertisements with borders in newspapers they read and then decided to incorporate that feature into their own advertisements.  Appleton did so first, commencing his advertisement in the January 19 edition of the Essex Gazette.  (His advertisement in the October 27, 1772, issue did not have a border.)  It already ran for four consecutive weeks before Higginson placed his own advertisement enclosed in a decorative border.  While Higginson may have also seen similar advertisements in newspapers published in Boston, it seems even more likely that he was familiar with Appleton’s advertisement that ran in the newspaper in his own town for the past month.

Whatever their inspirations, Appleton and Higginson continued experiments with type and format already underway among advertisers, compositors, and printers in the 1760s and 1770s.  The borders added visual aspects to their advertisement, drawing the attention of readers.  They likely also cost less than woodcuts that advertisers commissioned to adorn their notices.  After all, printers had a variety of decorative type in their cases.  Borders may have been a means of upgrading the visual appeal without significantly increasing the costs of advertising.

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