June 1

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

Boston Evening-Post (June 1, 1772).

“He fears that some Folks would call it Puffing.”

Recently the Adverts 250 Project featured Andrew Dexter’s advertisement to examine the type seemingly set in one printing office and transferred to others, but the copy merits attention as well.  Dexter attempted to entice prospective customers into his shop with a notice that mocked and dismissed many of the most popular marketing strategies of the period.

He began by stating that he sold ‘GOODS of various Sorts, fresh and new, from different Ports, but then refused to give details or elaborate.  Many merchants and shopkeepers gave that information.  Dexter critiqued the practice, proclaiming that he could mention the Ships by which he received them, and the Names of the respective Commanders; but most People know that this would not affect either the Quality or Price.”

Dexter then turned to other common elements of advertisements for imported goods.  “He could assert, that they were bought with ready Money, came immediately from the Manufacturers, and are the best of the several Kinds that were ever imported.”  Wanting it both ways, he implied that all of that was the case, but then called into question all of the advertisements that deployed such strategies.  “All of this he could say.– All of this, indeed, is easily said.”  He then leveled his most trenchant critique of a popular marketing strategy.  “But if he should add, that Shopkeepers might have his English Goods as cheap as from the Merchants in London, he fears that some Folks would call it Puffing, & others would give it even a worse Name.”

He continued to imply that he offered bargain prices without stating that he did so.  “If his Goods are cheaper than they are sold at any other Shop in Town, ‘tis abundantly sufficient.  He will not, however, roundly affirm any such Thing.”  Only after deriding the appeals made by his competitors in their advertisements did Dexter definitively present a reason for readers to visit his shop.  “He only wishes good People, Country Shopkeepers in particular, as they pass along, would be kind enough to call, and inform themselves.”  Figuring prospective customers engaged in comparison shopping, he acknowledged that they ultimately made decisions based on the information they gathered, no matter how much “Puffing” he included in his advertisements.

Ultimately, Dexter sought to build relationships with prospective customers, whether or not they bought anything the first time they visited his shop.  “After they have viewed every Article he has got, tho’ they should not then chuse to purchase even one of them,” he confided, “he will nevertheless own himself under great Obligations, and will kindly thank them for having given him Reason to hope, that, at some future Time, they will favor him with their Custom.”  Dexter prioritized prospective customers giving him the opportunity to serve them, now or in the future, over any of the usual appeals merchants and shopkeepers made about imported goods.  To underscore his intention, he jeered at the claims made in other advertisements, though he never denied that they also applied to his own merchandise.  He encouraged prospective customers to decide for themselves.

May 25

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 25, 1772).

“ALLEN … will sell … at a very little more than the Sterling Cost.”

Jolley Allen made his 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 easy to recognize in the spring of 1772.  Each of them featured a border comprised of ornamental type that separated Allen’s notices from other content.  Allen previously deployed this strategy in 1766 and then renewed it in the May 21, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  Four days later, advertisements with identical copy and distinctive borders ran in three other newspapers printed in town.  Allen apparently gave instructions to the compositors at the Boston Evening-Post and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy.  Those advertisements had copy identical to the notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, but the compositors made different decisions about the format (seen most readily in the border of Allen’s advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy).  Allen’s advertisement in the Boston-Gazette, however, had exactly the same copy and format as the one in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  For some of their advertisements, newspapers in Boston apparently shared type already set in other printing offices.

That seems to have been the case with Andrew Dexter’s advertisement.  He also included a border around his notice in the May 21 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  The same advertisement ran in the Boston Evening-Post four days later.  It looks like this was another instance of transferring type already set from one printing office to another.  The compositor for the Boston Evening-Post may have very carefully replicated the format of Dexter’s advertisement that ran in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, but everything looks too similar for that to have been the case.  In particular, an irregularity in closing the bottom right corner of the border suggests that the printing offices shared the type once a compositor set it.  They might have also shared with the Boston-Gazette.  Dexter’s advertisement also ran in that newspaper on May 25.  It had the same line breaks and italics as Dexter’s notices in the other two newspapers.  The border looks very similar, but does not have the telltale irregularity in the lower right corner.  Did the compositor make minor adjustments?

It is important to note that these observations are based on examining digitized copies of the newspapers published in Boston in 1772.  Consulting the originals might yield additional details that help to clarify whether two or more printing offices shared type when publishing these advertisements.  At the very least, the variations in Allen’s advertisements make clear that he intentionally pursued a strategy of using borders to distinguish his advertisements in each newspaper that carried them.  The extent that Dexter meant to do the same or simply benefited from the printing offices sharing type remains to be seen after further investigation.

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Left to Right: Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury (May 21, 1772); Boston-Gazette (May 25, 1772); Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1772); Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (May 25, 1772).

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Left to Right: Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (May 21, 1772); Boston Evening-Post (May 25, 1772); Boston-Gazette (May 25, 1772).

May 21

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (May 21, 1772).

“He will sell … at a very little more than the Sterling Cost.”

In an advertisement in the May 21, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Jolley Allen announced that he adopted “an entire New Plan” for selling the “very LARGE and NEAT Assortment of English and India GOODS” at his shop on Marlborough Street.  He declared that he would sell “HIS WHOLE Stock in Trade…, either by Wholesale or Retail, at a very little more than the Sterling Cost and Charges.”  In other words, he did not mark up the prices significantly over what he paid to his suppliers.  Allen expressed his confidence that “the Advantages that may arise to his Customers, will be equal if not superior to their purchasing at any Wholesale or Retail Shop or Store in Town or Country.”  He was determined to beat his competitors.

The graphic design for Allen’s advertisement may have helped attract attention to his “new Plan” for selling imported goods.  A border comprised of ornamental type enclosed the notice, setting it apart from the news and other advertisements on the page.  That brought this advertisement in line with some that he previously published.  He did not always incorporate a distinctive design element, but he more regularly did so than most advertisers.  Sometimes ornamental type flanked his name in the headline of his advertisement.  On other occasions he opted for borders.  Both strategies appeared in more than one newspaper, suggesting that Allen gave specific instructions to the compositors rather than leaving the format to their discretion.

Curiously, Allen’s advertisement was not the only one in the May 21 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter to feature a border.  Andrew Dexter’s advertisement had the same format, though a different printing ornament formed the border.  This was not a standard format in that newspaper or any other newspaper published in Boston at the time.  So how did two advertisements in the same issue happen to include borders?  Did one advertiser overhear the other giving directions to the compositor when dropping off copy to the printing office?  Or was it a coincidence?  Whatever the explanation, the borders made their advertisements distinctive enough compared to the rest that readers likely took note of both of them.