What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“ROLLING SCREENS for Cleaning Wheat or Flax-seed.”
Christian Fiss devoted half of the space in his advertisement in the July 18, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal to a depiction of a rolling screen for cleaning wheat and flaxseed. That woodcut almost certainly garnered attention from readers since it was one of the few images in that issue. Woodcuts adorned only three other advertisements, each of them showing nearly identical vessels at sea. The printers provided those stock images to advertisers seeking freight and passengers. On the other hand, Fiss commissioned an image specific to the “ROLLING SCREENS,” “DUTCH FANS,” and “various kinds of WIRE-WORK” he made at his shop. That woodcut appeared exclusively in his advertisements; other artisans who made similar items did not have access to it when they placed notices of their own.
Although the vast majority of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements did not feature any sort of image, woodcuts commissioned by individual entrepreneurs did appear with some regularity. Did the frequency change over time? Did advertisers become more likely to use combinations of words and unique images to promote their products? Did they become more likely to use images as brands or logos to make their advertisements more distinctive and their businesses more memorable? I believe that the answer to each of those questions is “yes,” but I also caution that this is merely an impression at this point rather than based on tabulating the number of specialized images incorporated into advertisements. When I compiled an archive of American newspapers published in 1771 that have since been digitized, I noticed what seemed to be a greater frequency of images commissioned by advertisers compared to the late 1760s. This merits further investigation to chart the evolution of graphic design in early American advertising. Throughout the eighteenth century, advertisers resorted primarily to text to deliver messages to prospective customers, but it also appears that over time greater numbers of advertisers experimented with visual images and invested in iconography associated with their businesses. As advertisers continued to encourage colonists to participate in a transatlantic consumer revolution, the early 1770s may have been a turning point in the development of advertisements that utilized unique images.