April 3

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (April 3, 1772).

“Country Traders … may be supplied with all Kinds of Writing-Paper … at any Store in Town.”

John Fleeming published the Boston Chronicle in partnership with John Mein from 1767 to 1770.  That newspaper folded, in large part due to the blatant Tory sympathies espoused by Fleeming’s partner.  Mein fled Boston, leaving Fleeming to oversee the business for the few months that the newspaper continued publication in his absence.  With the Boston Chronicle behind him, Fleeming turned to job printing and selling stationery and writing supplies.  In the April 3, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, for instance, he advertised a “large Assortment of STATIONARY” that included “Writing Paper of all Kinds, Quills, Wax, Wafers, Ink-Chests & Stands of various Kinds, Ivory Folders, Leather Ink Bottles, Ink-Powder, and Patent Cake Ink.”

Fleeming hoped to encourage retail sales among residents of Boston who visited his shop, but he also made an appeal to “Country Traders and Shopkeepers” looking to make wholesale purchases.  He promised them that they “may be supplied with all Kinds of Writing-Paper by the Ream, as Cheap as at any Store in Town.”  Fleeming competed with a number of stationers who imported paper from England, especially after Parliament repealed the duties on paper and other items and merchants called an end to the nonimportation agreement adopted to achieve that goal.  Eager to maximize revenues, Fleeming aimed to attract wholesale as well as retail customers.

In so doing, he resorted to a familiar marketing strategy, one adopted by merchants who sold a variety of imported goods ranging from textiles to housewares to hardware to patent medicines.  Some advertised that they filled retail orders sent from colonizers in the countryside.  Others did not work directly with consumers outside of Boston, but that did not mean that they neglected to capture wider markets as wholesalers.  Merchants frequently assured “Country Traders” that they offered the best bargains, allowing them to generate sales by passing along the savings to their customers.  By modern standards, Fleeming’s advertisement may not appear flashy, but that does not mean that it lacked a sound marketing strategy in the eighteenth century.

November 15

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

Nov 15 - 11:12:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (November 12, 1767).

“A large ASSORTMENT of STATIONARY.”

Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement reveals several aspects of consumer culture, commercial exchange, and everyday life in colonial America, yet when considered alone it tells only a partial story of print culture and advertising practices in the eighteenth century. When disembodied from the rest of the newspaper in which it appeared, this advertisement does not fully communicate how readers would have interacted with its visual aspects. Viewers get a sense of the typography – different font sizes, the selective use of italics and capitals, and the deployment of white space – but cannot compare those details to their treatment in other advertisements. Only in examining the entire page or the entire issue does the full significance of the typographical choices become apparent.

When viewing Purdie and Dixon’s notice in isolation, it would be natural to consider the size of the font throughout most of the advertisement to be the standard or default size. The quasi-headline “STATIONARY” stands out not only because it appeared in italics and capitals but especially because the compositor chose a font significantly larger than that used for the remainder of the text. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that font size replicated what was used in other advertisements in the same issue. Throughout the rest of the newspaper, both advertisements and news items appeared in a significantly smaller font, making them appear more dense and more difficult to read. By printing their advertisement in a larger font, Purdie and Dixon called special attention to it.

In addition, this advertisement occupied a privileged place in the November 12, 1767, edition of the Virginia Gazette. The four-page issue featured slightly over one page of news items; advertisements filled nearly three pages. About one-third of a column of news flowed onto the second page before a header for “Advertisements” indicated the purpose of the remaining content. Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement, with its larger font, appeared at the top of the second (and middle) column on the second page. This positioned it at the head of the first full column devoted to advertising, practically implying that the advertisements began there rather than at the header (printed with much smaller type). As a result of these typographical decisions, readers turning from the first to second page likely noticed Purdie and Dixon’s advertisement before their gaze landed anywhere else. Any readers who intended to continue perusing the news could hardly help but notice “STATIONARY” immediately to the right of what little news appeared on the second page. (Purdie and Dixon may have been especially keen to sell as much stationery as quickly as possible since the Townshend Act, which assessed new duties on imported paper, was scheduled to go into effect just eight days after their advertisement appeared.)

While it may be tempting to dismiss all of this as circumstantial, keep in mind that Alexander Purdie and John Dixon printed the Virginia Gazette. While they may not have set the type themselves, the compositor would have acted on their behalf as the publishers of the newspaper. The typography benefited their business interests in particular, an element that gets lost when viewing just their advertisement but not the entire page or the rest of the issue in which it appeared. As printers, they exercised power over what appeared in their publication, but they also exercised privilege in the presentation of the selected contents.

To examine the entire issue of the Virginia Gazette, visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital Library.