What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
Eighteenth-century newspapers featured few visual images. Many had some sort of device in the masthead, but usually delivered the news unadorned. Advertisements sometimes included images, but those were the exception rather than the rule. Those that did have woodcuts relied on stock images that belonged to the printer, primarily ships for notices about vessels preparing to depart, horses for advertisements about breeding, houses for real estate notices, and men or women fleeing for advertisements about apprentices and indentured servants who ran away or enslaved people who escaped. Such woodcuts were used interchangeably for advertisements from the appropriate genre. Other images that accompanied advertisements usually appeared because advertisers commissioned a woodcut specific to their business, either replicating their shop signs or depicting their most notable products.
When Joseph Crane and Josiah F. Davenport turned to the pages of the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy to advertise the stagecoach service they operated between New York and Philadelphia, they included a woodcut depicting a team of horses pulling a covered wagon. This was not one of the standard stock images, suggesting that Crane and Davenport had commissioned it for exclusive use in their advertisements. However, in their advertisements for “Stage-Waggons” that ran between New York and Philadelphia, John Mercereau and John Barnhill published what appeared to be the same image. This was not merely a case of using the woodcut in an advertisement that appeared on one page and then using it again in another advertisement on a page printed on the other side of the sheet. In the December 4, 1769, edition of the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy, Crane and Davenport’s advertisement featuring the woodcut ran on the same page as Mercereau and Barnhill’s advertisement featuring the woodcut. They had to have been printed simultaneously, indicating that James Parker, the printer, possessed more than one woodcut depicting horses pulling wagons, just as he had multiple woodcuts of ships and houses. It seems unlikely that Crane and Davenport or Mercereau and Barnhill would have commissioned a woodcut that looked so nearly identical to one used by a competitor as to be indistinguishable. Apparently Parker’s collection of stock images was at least a little bit larger than the frequent reiteration of the most common woodcuts suggested. That did not, however, significantly alter the frequency of visual images accompanying either news or advertising in his newspaper. His publication, like other colonial newspapers, consisted almost exclusively of text and a limited number of stock images. That made any visual image, but especially those seen infrequently, all the more notable.