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.