What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ravens Duck | Bohea Tea | Mason Glasses.”
Samuel Fletcher aimed to use typography to his advantage in an advertisement that ran in the December 26, 1768, edition of the Boston Evening-Post. In it, he listed a variety of imported goods among the inventory at his store “Near the Draw-Bridge,” including textiles, tea, and housewares. The contents of Fletcher’s advertisement did not much differ from what appeared in other notices for consumer goods placed in the Boston Evening-Post and other newspapers published in the busy port. The format, however, distinguished Fletcher’s advertisement from many others.
Fletcher enumerated approximately sixty items, organizing them into three columns that trisected the advertisement. Other advertisers that listed their wares tended to do so in dense paragraphs that did not feature any white space. Such was the case in Gilbert Deblois’s advertisement immediately below Fletcher’s notice and Joseph Barrell’s advertisement immediately to the right. Yet Fletcher was not alone among merchants and shopkeepers in electing to divide his goods into columns. Elsewhere on the same page, Samuel Allyne Otis divided his advertisement into two columns. Joshua Blanchard incorporated visual variety into his advertisement, publishing a short list of wines followed by a paragraph that promoted the quality of customer service his clients could anticipate. Although many advertisers opted for the standard dense paragraph, some experimented with other formats.
Fletcher’s decision to use columns came with one disadvantage. He could not list as many items in the same amount of space. Still, he managed to provide a general preview, enough to suggest an array of choices for consumers, before concluding with the phrase “With many Articles not mentioned” running across all three columns. This signaled to prospective customers that he did not necessarily stock fewer choices than his competitors, only that he organized them differently in his advertisement. In the spirit of “less is more,” listing fewer items but in a format with sufficient white space that allowed readers to navigate the contents of the advertisement more easily could have drawn attention to specific entries much more readily than had they appeared amidst a dense list of merchandise. For Fletcher’s advertisement, the typography very well could have been as effective as the copy.