July 27

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

New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (July 27, 1772).

“J. BAILEY. Cutler. from Sheffield.”

In the early 1770s, cutlers in New York competed with each other not only for customers but also in producing elaborate images to accompany their advertisements in the city’s newspapers.  It began in the spring of 1771 with Bailey and Youle, “Cutlers for Sheffield,” running an advertisement with a woodcut depicting more than a dozen items made and sold at their shop, enhancing their list of “surgeons instruments, … knives, razors, shears, and scissors.”  Not long after, Richard Sause followed their lead with an advertisement featuring a woodcut depicting more than a dozen items available at his shop.  Two items, a knife and a sword, had his name on them, suggesting that he marked his wares so consumers would recall who produced them and, if satisfied with the quality and durability, buy from him again.  In that regard, Sause improved on the image distributed by Bailey and Youle, although his competitors may have also marked their cutlery even if the woodcut in the newspaper did not indicate that was the case.

When Bailey and Youle dissolved their partnership a year later, Youle retained the woodcut and modified it to remove any reference to his former associate.  Not long after Youle disseminated that image in the public prints, Lucas and Shephard, WHITESMITHS and CUTLERS, From BIRMINGHAM and SHEFFIELD,” published their own advertisement with a woodcut showcasing many of the items they made and sold.  Bailey apparently considered that strategy effective for attracting customers (or at least not losing them to his competitors) because he devised his own woodcut that enclosed “J. BAILEY.  Cutler.  from Sheffield” and several cutlery items within a decorative border.  The copy of his advertisement gave his location as “the Sign of the Cross Swords, the Corner House opposite the Merchant’s Coffee-House.”  A pair of crossed swords appeared at the center of the woodcut.  A second woodcut appeared at the end of the advertisement, under a nota bene that advised that Bailey “has now for sale fullers shears.”  The cutler used the additional image to distinguish his notice from those of his competitors.  All three advertisements ran in the July 27, 1772, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (Bailey’s on the third page, Youle’s on the first page of the supplement, and Lucas and Shephard’s on the second page of the supplement).  Given the prevalence of images in advertisements placed by his competitors, Bailey may have considered it imperative to get his own woodcut depicting his wares into circulation among consumers in New York.

Left: New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (March 4, 1771); Right: Supplement to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (July 27, 1772).

January 30

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

Jan 30 - 1:30:1770 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (January 30, 1770).


John Rose and Alexander Rose, administrators of the estate “of the deceased Dr. WILLIAM ROSE,” turned to the newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina, to announce the sale of the late doctor’s “valuable PLANTATION” as well as “About THIRTY VALUABLE NEGROES,” livestock, furniture, and tools. The Roses included visual images in their advertisements to help draw the attention of prospective buyers. Indeed, they included two woodcuts, one depicting a house and another an enslaved man, in their advertisement in the January 30, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. If they included a visual image at all, most advertisements featured only one, even in similar advertisements that offered both real estate and enslaved men, women, and children for sale.

The inclusion of two woodcuts seems not to have been a choice made by the compositor working independently at the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. The following day an advertisement with identical copy ran in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. It also included two woodcuts, one of a house and fields and another of several enslaved people. It was not a coincidence that the two advertisements each had more than one visual image. A notice with the same copy also ran in the February 1, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette. It also had two woodcuts, one depicting a house and the other several enslaved people, both adults and children. The typography (fonts, fonts size, capitalization, italics) varied among the advertisements, but the copy was consistent, as was the inclusion of two visual images that set these advertisements apart from others. It seems clear that the Roses instructed each printing office that their notice must include both. Although the compositors made most of the decisions about the format of these advertisements, the Roses did exert some influence over the graphic design. They were certainly not the first or only advertisers to adopt this strategy for drawing attention to their notices, but they did experiment with an uncommon approach to visual images when they submitted the copy and specified that their advertisements must include two woodcuts rather than one or none.

February 15

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

South-Carolina and American General Gazette (February 13, 1767).

“Forty or fifty valuable SLAVES … Also, Sundry Plantations and Tracts of Land.”

The vast majority of colonial newspaper advertisements did not include visual images. When illustrations did appear with advertisements, they usually came from one of four categories. Images of ships at sea accompanied notices for vessels seeking passengers and freight, though they occasionally appeared in advertisements for imported goods. Depictions of horses ran alongside announcements by breeders offering stallions “to cover” mares. Images of slaves served two purposes: they were included with both advertisements seeking to sell slaves and notices that warned about runaways. (Curiously, similar advertisements for indentured servants were much less likely to include depictions of runaways making their escape.) Finally, real estate advertisements sometimes included images of houses or pastoral scenes. In each case, the woodcut belonged to the printer and could be used interchangeably with advertisements placed for similar purposes. On occasion, some advertisers commissioned their own woodcuts to attract attention to their advertisements, usually opting for an image that replicated their shop signs.

From the standard categories of woodcuts, all four appeared in the February 13, 1767, issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. No advertisers, however, spiced up their notices with original illustrations. That did not mean that the advertising in that issue lacked creativity when it came to the deployment of visual images. When advertisements included woodcuts they tended to have only one. Vendue master Robert Wells, however, oversaw the sale of both “forty or fifty valuable SLAVES” and “Sundry Plantations and Tracts of Land.” He opted to include both types of relevant woodcuts in his notice, a choice that likely resulted in readers noticing the rich visual texture of his advertisement. Given that Wells was charged with selling both slaves and real estate, he may have believed that if he was going to include any sort of woodcut at all then using both images was necessary. After all, readers might have passed over an advertisement showing just a slave or just a plantation, assuming that the woodcut summarized the contents of the entire notice. In a newspaper with few illustrations, Wells’ advertisement with two woodcuts stood out from the rest of the content.