What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A VERY large, neat and general assortment of looking-glasses.”
The copy they composed for their advertisements did not much differentiate the looking glass shops operated by John Elliott and James Reynolds in 1768. Both inserted an advertisement in the December 29 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Elliott promoted “A VERY large, neat and general assortment of looking-glasses” at “his Looking-glass store, the sign of the Bell and Looking-glass, in Walnut Street.” Reynolds offered “A large and general assortment of looking-glasses” at his new location “nearly opposite the London Coffee-House, in Front-street.” Each advertisement even included a nota bene concerning services for maintaining looking glasses prospective customers already owned.
Given these similarities, it was visual imagery rather than copy that differentiated the two advertisements. Reynold relied on a landmark unrelated to his business when giving directions to his new location. Elliott, on the other hand, developed his own brand, instructing prospective customers to look for “the sign of the Bell and Looking-glass.” To enhance the association of that image with his business, Elliott included a woodcut depicting his shop sign in his advertisement, more than doubling the amount of space it occupied. Given how few woodcuts accompanied advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Elliott’s large image of a bell and a looking glass enclosed in a decorative frame would have certainly garnered attention. It appeared on the same page as Thomas Hale’s advertisement featuring a much smaller woodcut of a bell, an image that did not similarly increase the length of that advertisement. Elliott’s woodcut alone occupied more space than Reynolds’s entire advertisement.
Throughout much of the year, Elliott demonstrated his commitment to developing an image that consumers would associate with his business. Advertisements featuring a woodcut of “the sign of the Bell and Looking-glass” appeared in multiple newspapers published in Philadelphia, including the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal. Elliott repeatedly deployed this image at his shop and in the press, saturating the local market with the logo he had chosen for his business. In the process, he made a significant investment in marketing. While it is difficult to determine if his strategy yielded better results compared to the advertisements placed by Reynolds, it is telling that Elliott considered it beneficial to devote time and expenses to a more sophisticated marketing campaign. While it might be tempting to dismiss many eighteenth-century advertisements as mere announcements, those placed by Elliott demonstrate that some entrepreneurs experimented with adopting logos and building their brand long before advertising professionals opened offices on Madison Avenue.