What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
Ornamental printing helped to make the final page of the supplement that accompanied the January 21, 1771, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury more visually interesting than any other portion of that issue. Rather than use a single line to separate advertisements, the compositor instead selected a variety of decorative type. Compare, for instance, the line between the advertisement for “SADLERY WARE” and George Ball’s advertisement about his new location to the ornaments that appeared above and below most of the other advertisements.
Eighteenth-century newspapers tended to feature few visual images other than a crest or signet in the masthead and a small number of woodcuts depicting ships, houses, horses, enslaved people, and runaway indentured servants. Sometimes those woodcuts appeared in great numbers, but most often advertisers deployed them sparingly. The edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury under consideration here ran only three advertisements with woodcuts, one on the third page and two on the fourth page. No images appeared on the second page; only the crest in the masthead adorned the first page. The two-page supplement included six woodcuts, two on the first page and four on the second. (Three of them can be seen in the detail of that page above.) With four woodcuts, the last page of the supplement already incorporated greater visual diversity than any other page of the standard issue and the supplement.
Beyond that, the compositor spruced up the page with more than twenty lines of decorative type that separated advertisements. The third and fourth pages of the standard issue and the first page of the supplement all consisted entirely of advertising, yet none of them received such treatment. Instead, single lines sequestered advertisements. What explains the burst of creativity on the final page? Was it a ploy to attract attention from readers once they discovered no news or editorials, especially those prone to skip over advertisements? Did more than one compositor set type for that issue and its supplement? What other factors might have influenced the design decisions that produced a final page so different from the rest of the issue? The format of these advertisements raises interesting questions without clear answers.