What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AN entire Assortment of all Kinds of DRUGS.”
In eighteenth-century American newspapers, compositors did not organize advertisements according to category or classification. Advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, advertisements concerning runaway servants and enslaved people who escaped from those who held them in bondage, and notices placed for a variety of other purposes appeared one after the other. This required active reading on the part of subscribers in their efforts to locate advertisements of interest.
Occasionally, however, compositors did cluster together certain kinds of advertisements. When the female seed sellers of Boston placed their advertisements in the spring, compositors working for several of the newspapers published in that city often tended to place their notices in a single column in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Similarly, the compositor for the Pennsylvania Gazette often arranged legal notices placed by the sheriff one after the other during the same period, though this may have been prompted in part from receiving them all at once. Still, notices placed by different sheriffs often tended to appear in succession in a single column. Whatever the explanation, these examples were exceptions rather than standard practice.
Did compositors sometimes experiment with grouping other advertisements according to their purpose? That may have been the case in the May 24, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Advertisements appeared on the third and fourth page of the standard issue as well as both pages of the supplement. Advertisements placed by apothecaries and druggists could have been dispersed throughout the issue, yet three of them ran together in the upper left corner of the final page. Robert Bass, apothecary, advertised “AN entire fresh Assortment of all Kinds of DRUGS [and] … a great Variety of Patent Medicines.” Duffield and Delany, druggists, promoted their “fresh and general Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES.” John Day and Company listed some of the items available among their “LARGE and general assortment of the very best Drugs” at their “Medicinal Store.” Due to their placement one after the other, readers could easily consult and compare these advertisements.
Yet if that were the intention of the compositor, it was not fully realized. Further down the column, separated by four advertisements (a real estate notice, another for horses and a carriage for sale, one for grocery items, and the last for hardware), another advertisement announced that John Gilbert, physician and surgeon, had opened “AN APOTHECARY’S SHOP.” A newcomer to the city, Gilbert focused on establishing his credentials rather than providing a list of medicines similar to those that appeared in the advertisements by Bass, Duffield and Delany, and John Day and Company. On the previous page, Isaac Bartram and Moses Bartram, apothecaries, ran an advertisement that more closely resembled those placed by their competitors.
The cluster of advertisements placed by apothecaries and druggists in the May 24,1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette was notable because such placement was unusual. Elsewhere in the same issue and its supplement, the compositor arranged legal notices together, but not all of them. No particular organizing principle seems to have guided the placement of other advertisements, except for fitting them to the page to achieve columns of equal length. Perhaps the cluster of advertisements for Robert Bass, Duffield and Delany, and John Day and Company was a mere coincidence. Alternately, it may have been a rudimentary attempt at classifying and organizing at least some of the advertisements for the benefit of readers.