What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“William Vans sells / Allspice by the Bag, / Raisins by the Cask, / Flour by the Barrel.”
William Vans wanted to make sure that prospective customers knew about the goods he offered for sale in the fall of 1772. Like other merchants and shopkeepers in Salem, Massachusetts, he placed advertisements in the Essex Gazette. Unlike his competitors, however, he did not limit himself to one advertisement at a time. Instead, he published multiple advertisements simultaneously, encouraging greater name recognition as readers encountered his notices over and over while perusing the newspaper.
The November 24 edition of the Essex Gazette featured four columns of advertising (out of twelve columns in the entire issue). Three advertisements inserted by Vans appeared in those four columns, one longer notice and two shorter ones. He could have made arrangements with the printer to consolidate the advertisements into a single notice, but apparently considered it more effective to have readers repeatedly return to his name and descriptions of his merchandise as they browsed through other advertisements promoting similar goods.
Vans once again ran his “GOODS cheaper the cheapest” advertisement, a catalog of his inventory that rivaled other advertisements in length. It included a revision to the final line, moving “Looking-Glasses” to a separate line and printing the word in a larger font to draw attention. That Vans modified his advertisement in that manner demonstrates that he could have inserted additional content if he wished.
Instead, he opted to publish two shorter advertisements. One consisted of only fifteen words on four lines: “William Vans sells / Allspice by the Bag, / Raisins by the Cask, / Flour by the Barrel.” Vans likely believed those quick pronouncements, that reiterative tattoo of goods and their containers, made his advertisement as effective as any of the more elaborate notices. He seems to have carefully selected his words to create a cadence that would resonate with readers. He took a more traditional approach in his other short advertisement, stating that he had a “few quarter Casks old Teneriffe WINE” for sale, as well as “ALLSPICE by the Bag or less Quantity.” He removed the portion about allspice when he published the advertisement the following week, once again suggesting an ability to revise, extend, and consolidate advertisements if he wished to do so.
Other merchants and shopkeepers occasionally adopted a similar strategy, publishing multiple advertisements in a single issue as a means of drawing greater attention to their names and their goods. Most purveyors of goods and services, however, tended to run only one advertisement at a time during the era of weekly newspapers prior to the American Revolution.