September 28

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy (September 28, 1772).

“FALL and WINTER / GOODS / OF ALL KINDS, / AND EXCELLENT / BROAD CLOTHS.”

In their efforts to capture as much of the market as they could, merchants and shopkeepers in cities with multiple newspapers often advertised in more than one publication.  They submitted identical copy to each printing office, but the compositors usually exercised discretion over the appearance of the advertisements in their newspapers.  This resulted in all sorts of variations in capitalization, italics, font sizes, line breaks, and white space.

Consider, for instance, an advertisement that Jonathan Williams, Jr., placed in the Boston-Gazette and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy on September 28, 1772.  The two notices had identical copy, but what appeared as “Fall and Winter GOODS / of all Kinds,—and excellent / BROAD CLOTHS” on three lines in the Gazette ran as “FALL and WINTER / GOODS / OF ALL KINDS, / AND EXCELLENT / BROAD CLOTHS” over five lines in the Post-Boy.  Similar variations occurred throughout the remainder of the advertisements.  The version in the Post-Boy also occupied more space relative to other advertisements than the one in the Gazette.  Longer than it was wide, Williams’s advertisement in the Post-Boy filled nearly two “squares” of space.  In contrast, his advertisement in the Gazette was wider than it was long, filling a little less than one square.

Boston-Gazette (September 28, 1772).

Despite the differences in size and format, both advertisements featured borders made of decorative type that distinguished them from other notices.  It hardly seems likely that this happened by chance, that compositors working independently in two printing offices just happened to create borders for Williams’s notice.  This suggests that the advertiser played some role in designing those advertisements.  That may have involved brief conversations with the printers or compositors, but more likely resulted from submitting written instructions.

Williams certainly did not invent this strategy of making his advertisements distinctive compared to others that did not incorporate borders or other decorative type.  In July 1766, Jolley Allen placed the same advertisement in four newspapers published in Boston.  They had identical copy but different formats.  Borders enclosed all of them, though the compositors made different decisions about what kind of decorative type formed those borders.  Other advertisers occasionally adopted a similar strategy, hoping the borders would help draw attention to their advertisements across multiple newspapers.