What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Hart’s Vendue Store.”
Relatively few eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements featured visual images. Most that did relied on woodcuts of ships, houses, horses, or people that belonged to the printer for repeated use in various advertisements, but some advertisers did commission woodcuts that appeared exclusively in their notices. Oftentimes such woodcuts depicted their shop signs, creating consistent marketing iconography, but that was not always the case. Whether or not tied to shop signs, unique woodcuts stood to attract more attention to advertisements than they would have garnered without visual images.
Readers of the January 8, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle could hardly have overlooked the advertisement for an auction house, Hart’s Vendue Store, with its exceptionally large woodcut depicting a hand ringing a bell enclosed in a frame. Even though it was not the only visual image, it dominated the page, in large part due to its size. The woodcut occupied more space than the copy for the advertisement! The frame formed a square with the length of each side the same as the width of the column in which the advertisement ran. Woodcuts that the printer supplied, including one of a ship in the advertisement immediately to the left of the one for Hart’s Vendue Store, were much smaller icons. They usually appeared in the upper left corner of advertisements, with copy to the right and continuing below. In featuring such a large visual image, Hart invested not only in commissioning the woodcut but also in the space required to publish it in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. It more than doubled the amount of space filled by the advertisement. Hart may have considered it very well worth the investment if the woodcut managed to distinguish his advertisement and attract bidders to his auction house. Footman and Jeyes placed an advertisement for their “New VENDUE-STORE” on the same page. It lacked visual images. Indeed, the entire advertisement filled the same amount of space as Hart’s woodcut alone.
In the process of mobilizing a visual image, Hart’s advertisement may have engaged readers in other ways as well. Did colonists hear the ringing of the bell when they saw the woodcut? Did they imagine someone walking through the streets of Philadelphia proclaiming that they should visit Hart’s Vendue Store and participate in “the Sales of a large and very neat ASSORTMENT of Merchandize” on Tuesday afternoon? Did the woodcut evoke some of the sounds of the colonial city, prompting readers to imagine that they were already part of the sales that would soon take place?
No other advertisement in that issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle compared to the notice for Hart’s Vendue Store. The image of the hand and bell may look crude by model standards, but the size of the woodcut and its inclusion in the advertisement at all would have been notable to colonial readers.