May 12

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

Supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette (May 12, 1773).


When an anonymous musician offered “to teach the art of playing on the Guittar, in the best and newest taste” and “likewise teaches the German flute,” he adorned his advertisement in the May 12, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette with an image of a guitar, a flute, and a sheet of music.  The woodcut accounted for half of the space occupied by the advertisement.  The combination of visual image and advertising copy likely drew the attention of readers, especially since most advertisements did not feature any sort of image.

Some did have a stock image in the upper left corner.  For instance, four advertisements that sought passengers and freight for ships preparing to depart for other ports incorporated woodcuts of vessels at sea, perhaps the most common image that appeared in a newspaper published in the bustling urban port of Philadelphia.  In contrast, images depicting enslaved people appeared about as often as images of ships in advertisements in newspapers published in Charleston.  The May 12 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette did not have any images of enslaved people, even though it included advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children for sale as well as notices describing enslaved people who liberated themselves and offering rewards for their capture and return.  That issue did feature one advertisement with a woodcut depicting an indentured servant who absconded.  Two advertisements for stallions “to cover” (or breed with) mares had woodcuts of horses.

Pennsylvania Gazette (May 12, 1773).

In addition to those stock images supplied by the printers, three images commissioned by advertisers to correspond to the goods and services they marketed adorned advertisements in that issue.  A woodcut depicting a stagecoach drawn by two horses enhanced the notice for the route that connected Philadelphia and New York, operated by Charles Bessonett and Company.  An image of a sickle accompanied the advertising copy in Jacob Eckfelt’s notice.  Finally, the woodcut depicting the guitar, flute, and sheet music distinguished the anonymous musician’s advertisement from others that consisted solely of text.

To varying degrees, eighteenth-century advertisers experimented with images in their newspaper notices, sometimes opting for stock images provided by the printers and other times commissioning woodcuts for their sole use.  Although the majority of advertisers did not incorporate images into their notices, enough did so to demonstrate both curiosity about the practice and a suspicion or even a belief that images were worth the additional investment.  While these images may seem quaint or rudimentary when viewed through modern eyes, they likely resonated with eighteenth-century readers who usually encountered images in advertisements and nowhere else in newspapers, with the exception of the image that appeared in the masthead on the first page of each issue.

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