What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“IRISH / LINENS, / Sheetings, cotton and / Linen checks; calicoes.”
The format of an advertisement for upcoming sales at Templeton and Stewart’s Auction Room in the August 16, 1773, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury almost certainly caught the eye of readers. Rather than appear in a blocky paragraph of text or side-by-side columns with one or two items per line, as was the case in other advertisements for consumer goods in that issue, the list of items for sale formed a diamond. The entries at the top and bottom of the diamond, “IRISH LINENS” and “PLAYING CARDS,” had one word per line, all in capital letters spaced appropriately to create a pleasing and attractive form. The compositor realized that lowercase letters at the top and bottom of the diamond would have had a jarring and unpleasant visual effect. Likewise, too many uppercase letters would have crowded the rest of the diamond, so other items appeared in lowercase letters as the list progressively widened and then progressively narrowed.
Using type to form geometric shapes, especially diamonds, was rare but not unknown in newspaper advertisements of the period. On September 30, 1771, all of the copy in Gilbert Deblois’s advertisement in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette appeared within a diamond, though the compositor did not manage to create lines nearly as straight as those in Templeton and Stewart’s advertisement. Such was also the case for Deblois’s advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter later that week. The compositor for the Essex Gazette achieved better results in an advertisement placed by John Cabot and Andrew Cabot in the December 3, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette. All of the copy ran at a forty-five-degree angle, filling an entire square. Two weeks later, the compositor and the Cabots experimented with the same copy, devising a shape that resembled a bulb as much as a diamond. Still, the unique format set it apart from other advertisements. With a shorter list of goods, Duncan Ingraham, Jr., concluded his advertisement in the April 20, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy with a diamond that featured straight edges.
Each of these advertisements demonstrates one manner for experimenting with graphic design elements of newspaper notices. The advertisers likely made special requests or sent instructions. They may have even submitted copy arranged the way they wished for it to appear in print, though compositors exercised final discretion in making innovative designs work. While some of these advertisements evidenced greater skill than others, each presented a novelty to readers and prospective customers. Such innovative graphic design demanded attention on pages largely devoid of visual images, the format encouraging readers to peruse the content.