What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Each articles will be put up singly, and in the order of the inventory annexed.”
Both the size and format of Richard Tidmarsh’s advertisement on the final page of the January 17, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal likely attracted attention. Rather than appearing in a single column, it ran across two columns. It also extended half a column, creating a large rectangle of text that seemed to dominate the page even though it accounted for about one-third of the content.
Tidmarsh, a druggist, announced an upcoming auction of “DRUGS, MEDICINES, and SHOP FURNITURE” in advance of his departure from the colony “by the first spring vessels.” He listed the items up for sale, in effect publishing an auction catalog as a newspaper advertisement. That list made the format of his advertisement even more distinctive. The introductory material extended across two columns, but the list of items for sale ran in three narrow columns that also did not correspond to the width of any columns that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper. To help prospective buyers navigate the list, Tidmarsh arranged entries for medicines in alphabetical order. In the final column, he inserted headers in capital letters for sections enumerating “PERFUMERY,” “PATENT MEDICINES,” and “SPARE UTENSILS and FURNITURE.” In the introduction, the apothecary explained his rationale for selling items separately rather than as a whole. He envisioned that “practitioners, as well as Gentlemen of the trade, will have an opportunity of being supplied with such articles as they may be out of.” Tidmarsh apparently did not anticipate any buyers for his entire inventory, but did anticipate demand for the various drugs and medicines on their own. He offered credit to buyers who purchased a sufficient quantity and promised that the “whole of the stock of MEDICINES and DRUGS are of the first quality.” To guide prospective buyers through the auction, he asserted that each article would be sold “in the order of the inventory annexed.”
Tidmarsh advertised an eighteenth-century version of a “going out of business” sale. In an effort to liquidate his inventory before leaving Philadelphia, he organized an auction that would allow buyers to acquire medicines “of the first quality” at bargain prices compared to retail and perhaps even wholesale transactions. He published an auction catalog in the public prints, its organized columns guiding prospective bidders through both the items for sale and the order. He also encouraged participation by offering credit to those who purchased in sufficient quantities. The unusual format of the apothecary’s advertisement also drew attention to the upcoming auction, helping to generate interest and incite bidders to attend.