December 8

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

Pennsylvania Gazette (December 8, 1768).

“THOMAS WEST … has imported in the last vessels from London and Liverpool, a neat assortment of MERCHANDIZE.”

When he placed an advertisement for “a neat assortment of MERCHANDIZE” in the December 8, 1768, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Thomas West adopted a standard format for advertisements for consumer goods. The amount of variation in the graphic design of such advertisements varied from newspaper to newspaper, but tended to be fairly fixed among those placed in the Pennsylvania Gazette by merchants and shopkeepers in the late 1760s. The printers and compositors may have exercised some influence over this standardization, especially considering that the Pennsylvania Gazette featured an especially high volume of paid notices compared to its counterparts in Philadelphia and throughout the colonies. Those who worked in the printing office may have discouraged, or at least not encouraged, innovations in the visual aspects of advertisements, finding that a no-frills format streamlined setting type. Advertisers may not have insisted on introducing new design elements into advertisements, content to submit copy and leave the format to the compositors.

Consider West’s advertisement. His name, all in capital letters, served as a headline. Next his advertisement featured a short introductory paragraph that provided an overview of his location, the sorts of goods he sold, and their origins. The introduction concluded with a brief appeal to price. The remainder of the advertisement consisted of a lengthy list of his inventory, presented in a paragraph of dense text. Elsewhere in the same issue, Edward Cottrell and James Reynolds inserted advertisements that followed this format. Other advertisers of consumer goods opted for slight variations, reversing the order of the headline and introductory paragraph or placing the headline in the middle of that overview. Despite lists of merchandise that ranged from short to lengthy, Alexander Bartram, James Budden, Benjamin Gibbs, William Nicholls, Richard Parker, and Samuel Taylor all deployed one of those variations.

In this regard, the Pennsylvania Gazette was a fairly conservative newspaper, but given its extensive circulation perhaps neither printers nor advertisers considered innovative graphic design particularly imperative. Advertisements comprised of chunky blocks of text certainly appeared in other newspapers throughout the colonies. Advertisements that deviated from that standard also found their way into the Pennsylvania Gazette. In general, however, many other newspapers ran advertisements that varied in appearance to a much greater degree, incorporating different fonts and font sizes, creative use of white space, and columns within advertisements, even when they also included the advertiser’s name as the headline, an introductory paragraph, and a list of merchandise. The unvarying format of advertisements within its pages made the Pennsylvania Gazette easy to recognize at a glance, even when the masthead was not visible.