What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“At the Sign of the GREYHOUND.”
In the spring of 1772, Nathaniel Wheaton advertised a “fine Assortment of Spring and Summer GOODS” that he recently imported to Providence “by the last Vessels from England.” He pledged to sell these items “cheaper than he has yet done,” promising bargains for prospective customers. To attract attention to his appeals to consumer choice, that “fine assortment,” and low prices, those low prices, he adorned his advertisement in the Providence Gazette with an image of a dog. He gave his location as “the Sign of the GREYHOUND, between the Baptist Meeting-House and the Church,” suggesting that the woodcut was intended to depict a greyhound. Readers may not have recognized the breed at a glance.
Despite the image’s shortcomings, it enhanced Wheaton’s marketing efforts. It was the only woodcut incorporated into an advertisement in the May 2, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette. Elsewhere in the issue, only the masthead featured an image. That almost certainly made readers take note of Wheaton’s advertisement, especially considering that most others consisted of dense paragraphs of text. In addition, the image contributed to creating a brand for Wheaton, giving his business a visual identity that colonizers encountered in more than one place. They saw his sign when they traversed the streets of Providence and they glimpsed his advertisements in the Providence Gazette. Wheaton may have also distributed broadsides, handbills, trade cards, or billheads that also bore an image purported to be a greyhound.
Other advertisers mentioned their shop signs. Thurber and Cahoon, for instance, announced that they did business at “the Sign of the BUNCH of GRAPES, in CONSTITUTION-STREET.” Tillinghast and Holroyd ran a store “at the Sign of the ELEPHANT.” Their advertisements hint at the rich visual culture associated with commerce in urban ports in eighteenth-century America. For his part, Wheaton expanded that visual culture into the most common media of the era, newspapers, increasing the chances that prospective customers would peruse the copy of his advertisement. Even if they did not, he gained greater visibility for his shop and name recognition than competitors who did not insert images with into their notices.