February 12

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

Pennsylvania Chronicle (February 6, 1769).

“The following large assortment of GOODS.”

In January and February 1769, Daniel Benezet, John Benezet, and Thomas Bartow attempted to maximize exposure for their advertisement concerning a “large assortment of GOODS” by running it in multiple newspapers. Over the course of several weeks, they first inserted it in the Pennsylvania Journal and then the Pennsylvania Chronicle and the Pennsylvania Gazette. The iterations in the Gazette and the Journal had strikingly similar appearances, almost as if the compositor for the former referred to an edition of the latter when setting type. The version in the Chronicle, however, looked quite different, even though it featured, for the most part, the same copy.

Rather than a lengthy paragraph of dense text that extended all or most of a column, the advertisement in the Chronicle treated each item separately. To achieve the necessary space for doing so, the compositor allowed the advertisement to extend more than one column. It filled two full columns and overflowed into a third. In addition, the compositor divided each column in half, thus giving the advertisement the appearance of running for four columns. That further underscored the appeal to consumer choice implicitly made within the advertisement, yet the format also made the contents easier to read. Prospective customers interested in particular kinds of merchandise could peruse the advertisement much more quickly and efficiently. The advertisement in the Chronicle left the order of the goods mostly intact, though instead of leading with “Blue, green, scarlet, claret, cinnamon, drab and copper coloured middling and low priced broadcloths” it instead moved “BEST bohea tea, by the chest” from the middle of the advertisement to become the first item.

This advertisement ran in the same issue that William Goddard, the printer, inserted a notice to subscribers and advertisers. In it, he informed advertisers that “due Care will be taken” that their notices would “appear in a correct, fair, and conspicuous Manner.” In addition, he asserted that since some advertisers were “unable to write in a proper Manner for the Press” that he “offers his Assistance gratis.” In other words, Goddard edited advertisements as a free service for his clients. Perhaps the familiar advertisement placed by the Benezets and Bartow demonstrates Goddard’s efforts in that regard. That could explain the significance differences in format when compared to the same advertisement in the Gazette and the Journal. Goddard may have also suggested listing tea first among their merchandise as a means of highlighting a popular product as well as making it immediately clear that the merchants carried grocery items as well as dry goods. Most evidence suggests that throughout the eighteenth century newspaper advertisers generally assumed responsibility for copy and compositors for format, but this advertisement considered in combination with Goddard’s notice suggests that sometimes printers took a more active role in designing advertisements to appeal to readers. In so doing, they anticipated an essential service provided by the advertising industry in the twentieth century.