What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“LOAF SUGAR, BOHEA TEAD, MENS SADDLES.”
The typography of John Rae’s advertisement distinguished it from others that ran in the November 25, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Most of the items for sale in his list-style advertisement appeared in capital letters, a style deployed sparingly elsewhere among the paid notices. This indicates that the advertiser sometimes exercised some influence over the format of advertisements in the eighteenth century, even though standard practice dictated that the advertisers write copy but leave it to the discretion of printers and compositors to determine the layout and other typographical aspects of advertisements.
Rae’s advertisement suggests collaboration between advertiser and compositor. Compared to newspapers printed in other colonies, especially in the largest port cities, the Georgia Gazette featured relatively little innovative typography in its advertisements. The compositor generally adhered to a particular format in order to achieve speed and efficiency when setting type. Rae may not have specifically instructed that his goods appear in capital letters; instead, he may have merely requested some unique attribute to attract the attention of potential customers. The compositor, less imaginative than counterparts in printing offices in other colonies, may have considered the capital letters an adequate solution.
The headline – “The Subscriber has for Sale” – in an ornate font also may have been an attempt to create a distinctive visual style for Rae’s advertisement. Four other advertisements in the November 25 issue included headlines: “Wanted to Hire,” “Wanted on Hire,” “To be Hired by the Month or Year,” and “Brought to the Work-house.” Each of these introduced advertisements concerning servants or slaves, again hinting that the compositor devised particular methods for setting type for specific kinds of advertisements. Rae may have disrupted that system by requesting that his headline appear in that font. Alternately, when pressed to spruce up Rae’s advertisement, the compositor may have resorted to a familiar method that did not require excessive creativity. The compositor may have been capable of only limited innovation.
The visual aspects of Rae’s advertisement raise many questions about the process that went into creating it. It may be tempting to dismiss its format as arbitrary or haphazard, but comparing it to others on the same page reveals that someone – advertiser, compositor, or the two in collaboration – made deliberate choices in creating an advertisement that differed from all others in the same issue.