September 13

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

Sep 13 - 9:13:1768 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (September 13, 1768).

“Black silk and cotton gauzes.”

Several merchants and shopkeepers placed list-style advertisements in the September 13, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal and its two-page supplement. Among them, George Ancrum and Company, Elizabeth Blaikie, Thomas Walter, Godfrey and Gadsden, and John McCall each enumerated dozens of items they offered for sale. Most of these advertisements took the form of dense paragraphs that did not incorporate visual signals intended to differentiate the various goods they listed. Godfrey and Gadsden, however, experimented with the format of one of their advertisements. Rather than a single paragraph, they opted for two columns with only one or two items listed on each line, making it easier for prospective customers to spot “coloured ribbons” and “parrot cages” amid the many other goods. This distinctive layout distinguished Godfrey and Gadsden’s advertisement from the many other notices on the same page, even though their inventory replicated the merchandise available from their competitors.

Yet this was not the only advertisement Godfrey and Gadsden placed in that issue. In another advertisement on the same page they deployed a lengthy paragraph that rivaled all others in its density. Although the advertisement with the dense paragraph of goods occupied a privileged position as the first item in the first column, the format of the advertisement divided into two columns (with significantly more white space) made the latter much more prominent, even though it appeared near the bottom of the final column. The disparity between the two demonstrates that Godfrey and Gadsden were not committed to one format over the other; it does suggest that they did intentionally experiment with the visual elements of their advertisements, perhaps of their own volition or perhaps at the urging of a compositor who made suggestions about possible alternatives. Compared to newspapers published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal featured less variation when it came to the format of list-style advertisements in the late 1760s, yet advertisers and compositors did sometimes play with typography to create notices with unique graphic design elements.

August 5

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

Aug 5 - 8:5:1768 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (August 5, 1768).

“colours, Six quarter|London quality’s|common, Spike do”

Although many eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for consumer goods took the form of long lists delivered in dense paragraphs, some advertisers and compositors experimented with other formats that made advertisements easier to read. Listing only one or two items per line better highlighted each item; the white space aided in directing readers to those goods that most interested them. This strategy, however, reduced the number of items that could be included in the same amount of space. Advertisers had to choose between listing fewer goods or paying for advertisements that occupied greater amounts of space in newspapers.

Getting creative with typography allowed for another choice: dividing an advertisement into columns and listing one item per line per column. When undertaken by a skilled compositor, this strategy still introduced sufficient white space to significantly improve readability while doubling or tripling, depending on the number of columns, the number of goods that appeared in a neatly organized list. List-style advertisements that featured columns usually had only two, but occasionally compositors demonstrated that it was possible to effectively incorporate three columns.

The success of this strategy depended on the skills of the compositor. An advertisement placed by Samuel Broome and Company in the August 5, 1768, edition of the Connecticut Journal demonstrates that experimenting with the graphic design elements of newspaper advertisements did not necessarily produce positive results. In an advertisement that filled an entire column, Broome and Company made an appeal to consumer choice by listing scores of items they sold at their store in New York. The compositor divided the advertisement into three columns, but apparently nobody affiliated with the production of the advertisement – neither Broome and Company when writing the copy nor the compositor when setting the type – insisted that it should list only one item per line per column. Instead, the advertisement featured the dense paragraph format common to so many newspaper advertisements, but divided into three narrow columns. Not only did this not make the contents any easier for prospective customers to read, the lack of space devoted to separating columns made the advertisement even more confusing and difficult to decipher.

While it is possible that the strange format may have attracted some attention, the challenges inherent in reading Broome and Company’s advertisement likely did not prompt potential customers to examine it closely, especially not casual readers who did not already have an interest in some of the goods that Broome and Company carried (if they could only find them in that disorienting list). Good typography helped to develop interest and perhaps incite demand for consumer goods listed in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, but clumsy typography that made it more difficult for readers to peruse some advertisements likely made those advertisements even less effective than if they had simply resorted to the traditional dense paragraph format.

March 13

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

Mar 13 - 4:10:1768 Pennsylvania Journal
Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal (March 10, 1768).

“Tea pots and sugar-pots … Slop-bowls.”

Cornelius Bradford, a pewterer, operated a shop “At the sign of the dish in Second Street” in Philadelphia. According to an advertisement that appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal, he made and sold “All Sorts of Pewter Ware,” including “Dishes and plates of all sizes,” “Half pint and gill tumblers,” “Porringers,” and “Saltcellars.” Like many other shopkeepers and artisans who placed advertisements in colonial newspapers, he provided a list of his wares. When it appeared in print, however, Bradford’s list had a fairly unique appearance, suggesting that either the advertiser or the compositor aimed to use typography to distinguish that notice from others in the same newspaper.

Advertisements that included a list of merchandise most commonly took the form of dense paragraphs that extended anywhere from five to dozens of lines. The shorter advertisements occupied the traditional square, often the unit that printers used when determining prices for paid notices, but others extended for half a column or more. Such dense advertisements demanded active reading on the part of prospective customers. In other instances, advertisements that listed goods also featured typography that made it easier for readers to peruse those items. Such advertisements sometimes divided the space to create narrower side-by-side columns within the column. Each line then listed only one or two items.

Two advertisements in the Supplement to the Pennsylvania Journal distributed on March 10, 1768, were designed with columns instead of dense paragraphs. Joseph Wood’s advertisement for textiles took the standard format: two columns of equal width. Cornelius Bradford’s advertisement, on the other hand, looked quite different from the side-by-side columns that usually appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal and other colonial newspaper. Rather than two columns of equal width, it had one wider column on the left and one narrower column on the right with the merchandise sorted accordingly.

This demonstrates that someone seriously contemplated the typography of the advertisement. Who? Ultimately the compositor set the type. Was it set exactly according to the copy submitted by Bradford? Or did the compositor revise the order of Bradford’s wares in order to create a more efficient and visually attractive use of space? What kinds of instructions did Bradford give when he submitted the copy? Did the advertiser and the compositor consult with each other at any point in the production of the advertisement? Bradford’s advertisement raises intriguing questions about the process for publishing newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century. It also testifies to the careful consideration that went into the visual elements of some advertisements. Although composed entirely of text, Bradford’s advertisement had a unique graphic design that set it apart from others of a similar format.

September 13

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

Sep 13 - 9:13:1766 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 13, 1766).

“AT BENJAMIN and EDWARD THURBER’s Shops, at the Signs of the Bunch of Grapes and Lyon.”

On August 9, 1766, Thompson and Arnold placed an exceptional advertisement in the Providence Gazette, an advertisement guaranteed to attract attention thanks to its innovative graphic design. Unlike the standard advertisement that appeared elsewhere in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers throughout the colonies, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement extended across two columns, sequestered from other content on the page by a decorative border comprised of printer’s ornaments. Within the advertisement, the extensive list of merchandise was set in three columns, further disrupting the lines formed by the other columns on that page and the rest of the issue. Furthermore, Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement was so large that it dominated the page. At a glance, it seemed more like a trade card or handbill, meant to be distributed separately, yet superimposed on the newspaper page.

Thompson and Arnold’s striking advertisement appeared in the Providence Gazette in subsequent issues, moving to different corners of the page depending on the needs of the printer, but always the focal point no matter the quadrant where it appeared. Then something even more interesting happened just five weeks later. The Providence Gazette featured another advertisement, this one the shops operated by Benjamin and Edward Thurber, that imitated the graphic design of Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement. It was oversized. It spread across two columns. It included a decorative border made of printing ornaments. It further disrupted the lines on the page by dividing the merchandise into three columns. It could have been distributed separately as a handbill or trade card.

Benjamin and Edward Thurber’s advertisement appeared on the third page of the September 13, 1766, issue of the Providence Gazette. Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement continued to appear on the fourth page. What might Thompson and Arnold have thought of their competitors aping their unique graphic design? Advertisers seemed to be paying attention to the commercial notices placed by others and updating their own marketing in response to what they saw and what they anticipated would be effective.

August 9

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

Aug 9 - 8:9:1766 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 9, 1766).


The graphic design of Thompson and Arnold’s newspaper advertisement would have certainly caught readers’ attention in the 1760s. Featuring a decorative border and three columns listing “A large and general Assortment of English and India Goods,” it was unlike any other advertisements that appeared in newspapers of the period.

Whenever possible, I highlight innovations in format and graphic design that set particular eighteenth-century advertisements apart from their contemporaries. For the most part, these innovations were fairly conservative as advertisers and printers experimented with new methods yet continued to create advertisements that, to a greater or lesser degree, blended in with other commercial notices.

That was not the case with Thompson and Arnold’s eye-catching advertisement. The border was sufficient to mark this advertisement as different, but a small number of other advertisers (such as Jolley Allen) also used borders to set their advertisements apart from their competitors.

The number of columns in this advertisement also merited attention. Other advertisers frequently divided their lists of goods into two columns, but Thompson and Arnold managed to squeeze three columns into their advertisement. How did they do that? Their advertisement actually extended across two columns of the Providence Gazette, a mode of setting type not commonly used for either advertisements or new items. Typically only the masthead and the colophon extended across more than one column in any eighteenth-century newspaper.

Aug 9 - 8:9:1766 Fourth Page Providence Journal
Fourth Page of Providence Gazette (August 9, 1766).

The printer would have had to set Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement separately. Its design and inclusion required special effort and attention. Visually, it dominated the final page of the Providence Gazette. If a reader were holding open the newspaper to read the second and third pages, this advertisement would have also dominated any observer’s view of the first and fourth pages.

Other newspaper advertisements were certainly set in type specifically for inclusion in newspapers and possessed no other purpose. The size and design of this advertisements, however, suggests that it could have also been printed separately as a trade card or handbill, which would have benefited both the advertisers and the printer who generated revenue for the job.