What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Choice Cyder Vinegar.”
As summer approached in 1771, the number of advertisements in the Providence Gazette increased, due in part to the arrival of ships from England delivering imported goods to merchants and shopkeepers after winter ended. Advertising accounted for nearly half of the content in the June 8, 1771, edition, many of the paid notices seeking to entice consumers to purchase textiles, garments, housewares, and hardware.
Many of those advertisements followed a similar format. Headlines consisted of the names of the advertisers while the body of the notices provided lists of goods, alerting prospective customers to the many choices available, in dense paragraphs of text. In terms of graphic design, those advertisements resembled other paid notices, including advertisements about runaway indentured servants, legal notices, estate notices, and even advertisements about strayed or stolen horses. Some advertisements did not much different than news accounts. Determining the purpose of an advertisement and navigating its contents required careful reading.
Some purveyors of consumer goods adopted a different strategy when enumerating their merchandise. Instead of a single paragraph, Edward Thurber used two columns with only one item on most lines. This introduced a greater amount of white space into the advertisement while simultaneously making it easier to skim the notice and determine whether it included specific items of interest. This format increased the amount of space an advertisement filled, which meant that advertisers paid more for it. Thurber may have considered it well worth the investment if the graphic design distinguished his notice from the many others placed by his competitors.
Only one other advertisement in the June 8 edition featured merchandise listed in columns. Amos Throop, an apothecary, used columns for listing the various patent medicines available at his shop. He then reverted to the standard paragraph format for listing other items, producing a hybrid format for describing his inventory. Both Thurber and Throop competed with other advertisers who sold the same goods, as well as many others who did not resort to the public prints to hawk their wares. Thurber and Throop made appeals to consumer choice, customer service, and low prices, but they did not depend on advertising copy alone in reaching out to prospective customers. Graphic design likely also helped them to capture and keep the attention of consumers perusing the Providence Gazette.