December 26

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

Boston Evening-Post (December 26, 1768).

“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.

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:16:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (June 16, 1768).

“A great Variety of Callicoes.”

Even though he advertised many of the same goods as other merchants and shopkeepers who placed notices in Boston’s newspapers in June 1768, Samuel Fletcher attempted to attract attention to his wares via the visual design of his advertisement in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Eighteenth-century advertisers often listed an assortment of goods that comprised their inventory, informing potential customers of a vast array of choices to suit their tastes and budgets. Most merchants and shopkeepers who published such advertisements simply listed their merchandise in dense paragraphs. Others experimented, perhaps with the encouragement of printers and compositors who better understood the possibilities, with arranging their goods in columns, listing only one or two items per line, in order to make the entire advertisement easier for readers to peruse.

Usually list-style advertisements broken into columns featured only two columns, but Fletcher’s advertisement in the June 16, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter had three, distinguishing it from others that appeared in the same publication that week. (Fletcher’s advertisement was the only one divided into columns in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, but two others in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette used columns to organize “A great Variety of English and India Goods.” For the purposes of this examination of these advertisements, I have classified Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter as only one publication because they were printed on a single broadsheet folded in half to create four pages, two of which comprised Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the other two the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Whether the boundaries between the two were permeable when it came to inserting advertisements requires further investigation, but Draper printed both and the same compositors presumably set type for both.) Caleb Blanchard and Samuel Eliot inserted lengthy advertisements that extensively listed scores of items, each advertisement divided down the middle to create two columns. Other newspapers published in Boston in the late 1760s often included advertisements that used this format, making it familiar to readers in the city and its hinterlands. Very rarely, however, did advertisements feature three columns.

As a result, the visual aspects of Fletcher’s advertisement made it stand out from others, even if nothing else about the list of goods distinguished it from the notices placed by his competitors. Fletcher made a brief appeal to price, noting that he “Sells cheap for Cash,” but primarily relied on the graphic design of his advertisement to direct readers to his advertisement as part of his effort to convince potential customers to visit his shop “Near the Draw-Bridge, BOSTON.”

January 20

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

Jan 20 - 1:20:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (January 20, 1766)

“At his STORE … Where LADIES may find as compleat an Assortment as at any Store in Town.”

Consumption is feminized in the twenty-first century.  After all, ladies love shopping, right?  At first glance, Samuel Fletcher’s advertisement might suggest that this is a natural conclusion, that consumption has always been a feminine pursuit because women more inherently possess a desire to shop than men do.

However, reaching such a conclusion based on Fletcher’s advertisement would be faulty.  This advertisement, listing so many of the different goods for sale in Boston and so many other colonial American port cities and villages, is rather unique among those published in the 1760s.  Very rarely did advertisers in this era identify potential customers by gender (though there were exceptions, such as seamstresses who made clothes for women and tailors who specialized in men’s garments).  In explicitly identifying “LADIES” with consumption, Fletcher engaged in a mode of marketing not yet widely practiced, but one that eventually became a largely unquestioned part of American consumer culture.

I choose many advertisements because they include common or standard aspects of eighteenth-century marketing, but this advertisement caught my attention precisely because the appeal to the “LADIES” was extraordinary, rather than ordinary, in the 1760s.