What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“FINE BOHEA TEA.”
William Greaves opened his advertisement by announcing that he sold “FINE BOHEA TEA, At twenty-seven shillings and six pence per pound.” The format distinguished it from other advertisements for consumer goods and services that ran in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal in the late 1760s. Advertisers tended to follow certain conventions when they wrote copy, but Greaves experiments with something different. That variation likely drew greater attention to his advertisement.
Advertisements, especially list-style advertisements that enumerated an assortment of merchandise, in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal and other newspapers usually opened in one of two ways. Some merchants and shopkeepers used their own names, all in capital letters, as a headline, followed by a description of their origins of their goods or their location as a distinct section of text, and then the list of goods in stock. Such was the case in an advertisement that advised readers “JAMES McCALL, HAS just imported in the London, Captain Curling, and the Mary, Captain Gordon, from London, and Indian King, Captain Baker, from Bristol, a large supply of GOODS, amongst a great variety of other articles.” McCall’s advertisement then listed scores of items. Similarly, “WILLIAM WILLIAMSON, In Broad-street, next door to Mr. Lockwood’s watchmaker, &c. hath received per consignment, for sale” several sorts of spirits. Each of these advertisements was divided into three segments, each of them familiar to reader, each of them with a purpose easily identifiable.
The same was true of the other popular method for writing copy for advertisements for consumer goods and services. That format reversed the order of the first two elements. The advertiser’s name appeared as a headline, but only after introductory remarks about the origins of the goods offered for sale. For instance, an advertisement for dry goods began with “JUST imported in the ship Bacchus, Daniel Jackson, Master, from Liverpool, and to be sold by WILLIAM HARROP.” Another advertisement more simply started with “JUST IMPORTED, and to be SOLD, By NATHANIEL RUSSELL.” In all of these, the name of the advertiser appeared in larger type than any other text in the advertisement.
Greaves included the same information in his advertisement, but he used one item from among his merchandise to draw the attention of potential customers and encourage them to peruse the rest of his list of goods. Unlike the advertisements placed by his competitors, Greaves’ notice had two headlines: “FINE BOHEA TEA” at the beginning of the advertisement, followed by his name. Both appeared in all capital letters of a larger font than the remainder of the text. Rather than rely on an implicit appeal to consumer choice through publishing an extensive list of his wares, Greaves explicitly marketed one item in order to set the tone for prospective customers to read the rest of the advertisement. He underscored the quality, price, and freshness of his “BOHEA TEA” before giving any of the other information about his business that usually appeared first in advertisements. When it came to innovation, the format of this advertisement alone made Greaves’ notice distinctive, both in a newspaper crowded with advertisements and in a port city busy with commercial exchanges.