What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Brown Sugars of various Qualities.”
Like most advertisements that ran in eighteenth-century newspapers, Joseph Barrell’s notice in the July 22, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post consisted entirely of text unadorned with images. That did not mean, however, that Barrell did not deploy graphic design to his advantage. In listing dozens of commodities available at his store, he adopted a unique format that distinguished his advertisement from others in the newspaper. Barrell centered his text, producing a distinctive amount of white space compared to other notices.
Consider the most common configurations for enumerating goods in advertisements. Both styles appeared on the same page as Barrell’s notice. In the first, the most common, advertisers listed items in dense paragraphs of text with both the left and right side justified with the margins. This gave such advertisements some visual heft, communicating to prospective customers that the advertisers carried vast assortments of goods, but it also made those advertisements more difficult to read compared to the second option. Some advertisers decided to divide their notices into columns, listing only one or two items per line. That method also yielded blank space that made it easier for readers to navigate those advertisement, but it meant that purveyors of goods could not list as many items in the same amount of space. Charles Dabney utilized the first method for his “general Assortment of English and India GOODS” in an advertisement about as long as it was wide, one that featured very little blank space. William Scott’s advertisement for a “Variety of English and Scotch Goods” was just as dense and perhaps even more difficult to read since it extended more than twice the length of Dabney’s notice and listed many more items available at his shop. John Head, on the other hand, resorted to columns for his commodities. In an advertisement that occupied about as much space as Dabney’s, he listed far fewer items.
Readers readily recognized both formats, but that was not the case for Barrell’s advertisement. Compositors often centered the first couple of lines of advertisements, the introductory materials that gave the advertiser’s name and location, but rarely did they center the contents in the body of the advertisement. That made Barrell’s advertisement unique, likely drawing the eyes of readers. Barrell did not offer goods that differed much from those available in other shops, nor did he make appeals to price or quality that differed from those advanced by other advertisers. His advantage in communicating with prospective customers derived from the graphic design elements of his advertisement.