What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A servant lad of slender fame, / And WILLIAM COCHRAN is his name.”
To increase the chances that readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette would take note of his advertisement about a runaway indentured servant, James Wilson resorted to more than a dozen rhyming couplets. In the spring of 1772, he advised that “THIS instant April the twelfth day, / From the subscriber run away, / A servant lad of slender fame, / And WILLIAM COCHRAN is his name.” Wilson then described Cochran’s clothing, age, and physical characteristics, incorporating as much information as appeared in other advertisements placed for the same purpose but in verse to entertain and to hold the attention of readers who might recognize the fugitive. In addition, Wilson commenced his advertisement with a headline that proclaimed, “SIX DOLLARS Reward,” and concluded, as was common practice in such notices, with more details about the reward. “Whoever will this lad secure, / That I again may him procure,” Wilson declared, “As I my honour do regard, / He shall get the above reward, / And all costs reasonable thereon, / By the subscriber, JAMES WILSON.”
Many of the rhymes were quite strained, though Wilson generally did better with the meter. Still, composing a great work of literature was not his goal. Instead, he sought to produce an advertisement that readers would notice and remember, especially considering how frequently advertisements for runaway apprentices and indentured servants as well as notices offering rewards for enslaved people who liberated themselves appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette and other newspapers published in the colony. The combination of rhyming couplets and the white space within the advertisement that resulted from that format distinguished Wilson’s notice from others. Three notices about runaway indentured servants appeared immediately above Wilson’s advertisement in the April 30, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, each of them a dense paragraph of text. Such advertisements were so familiar to eighteenth-century readers that Wilson apparently believed that bad poetry was better than no poetry in drawing attention to his advertisement.