What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A VERY great Variety of plain and changeable mantuas, both ½ ell and ¾ ell wide.”
Daniel Benezet’s extensive advertisement from the March 15, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle continued to run in subsequent issues of that newspaper, though the compositor made modifications to the format. The advertisement featured the same copy, but the organization better fit the page. The original version filled two columns and overflowed into a third, in part because it appeared on the first page and the masthead occupied a significant amount of space at the top of the page. Upon moving the advertisement to other pages, the compositor gained space to confine it to two columns. In another modification, the headline at the top of the advertisement and the nota bene that announced “BENEZET is leaving off Business” and, as a result, “determined to sell the above Goods on very low Terms” at the bottom both ran across multiple columns. The new format looked like a handbill that could have been printed separately as well as an advertisement integrated into the pages of the Pennsylvania Chronicle.
When it came to the visual appeal of the advertisement, the compositor made all the difference. Benezet placed a notice with the same copy in the April 14 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but it did not look like the same advertisement. The compositor for the Pennsylvania Chronicle deployed generous amounts of white space to make Benezet’s advertisement easier for readers to navigate. He did so by dividing each column into two columns and listing only one item or category of items on each line. In contrast, the compositor for the Pennsylvania Gazette resorted to a much more crowded format, listing hundreds of items in a single paragraph that extended more than a column. Readers almost certainly found it more difficult to navigate the dense text in the version of the advertisement that ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette, a feature that likely made it more difficult to engage prospective customers.
The variations in the format of Benezet’s advertisement demonstrate the division of labor that usually defined advertising in early American newspapers. Advertisers composed and submitted copy, but compositors made decisions about format and other aspects of graphic design. On occasion, consistency in design across advertisements placed in multiple newspapers suggests that advertisers made specific requests or even consulted directly with compositors. That did not happen when Benezet submitted the advertising copy to the Pennsylvania Gazette. He may have even provided the notice from the Pennsylvania Chronicle as reference, leaving it to the compositor to make final decisions about format while incorporating the copy in its entirety.