January 9

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

Jan 9 - 1:9:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 9, 1768).

“At their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.”

Benjamin Thurber and Daniel Cahoon informed residents of Providence and its hinterland that they had formed a partnership in an advertisement that ran in the Providence Gazette in the fall of 1767. In their initial notice the shopkeepers emphasized their retail space, trumpeting that they “have built and compleated the best and largest Shop and Store in Providence.” They also proclaimed that they had “furnished it with a very large and general Assortment of the very best of English and India Piece Goods, Hard Ware, all Sorts of West-India Goods, and Groceries of all Kinds.”

In their subsequent advertising Thurber and Cahoon turned to demonstrating the extent of their inventory, listing dozens of items available for purchase “at their New Shop and Store, the sign of the Bunch of Grapes.” Just as they claimed to operate the largest shop in town, their advertisement occupied the most space in the January 9, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette, although it had been rivaled by Jonathan Russell’s advertisement in the previous issue. Thurber and Cahoon may have been motivated, in part, by Russell’s lengthy advertisement and its extended run in their local newspaper. It commenced in mid November, shortly after they announced their partnership, and continued for eight weeks, disappearing from the pages of the Providence Gazette after the first issue of the new year. Thurber and Cahoon may have determined that they needed to place an advertisement of similar length to challenge Russell and to remind potential customers of the size of their shop, supposedly the largest in Providence.

Their advertisement extended nearly three-quarters of a column, twice the length of the next longest advertisement in the January 9 issue. It also featured unique typography. Rather than list their wares in a single continuous and dense paragraph, they instead enumerated one or tow items per line and created two narrower columns within the single column that contained their advertisement. Not only did this typographical strategy make their notice appear even longer, it may have conjured up rows of shelves in their shop, suggesting how much space Thurber and Cahoon made available for customers to leisurely browse through their merchandise. By comparison, the other advertisements in the same issue looked much more cramped, implying that their shops were equally crowded and difficult to navigate.

Thurber and Cahoon used the amount of space on the page and design elements to their advantage when they placed their advertisement in the Providence Gazette. Although they echoed many of the same appeals to price, quality, and service that appeared in other commercial notices, the typography set their advertisement apart and buttressed the claims they made to potential customers.

January 2

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

Jan 2 - 1:2:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (January 2, 1767).

“Very CHEAP.”

The typography of Thompson and Arnold’s advertisement in the January 2, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette deviated from the standard format for notices placed by merchants and shopkeepers throughout the rest of the issue. Each advertisement had a headline of sorts, but in most instances the headline announced the name of the advertiser. In fonts several sizes larger than the text for the rest of the advertisement, those headlines marked notices inserted by Samuel Carew, Nathl. Greene, J. Mathewson, Benoni Pearce, Jonathan Russell, J. & Wm. Russell, and Darius Sessions. Some of them abbreviated their names in order to fit on a single line.

Thompson and Arnold’s notice, on the other hand, included their names in larger font than most of the advertisement yet reserved the largest font for a marketing appeal that appeared first, preceding their names and all other information included in the advertisement. “Very CHEAP” proclaimed their headline, immediately signaling to prospective customers what kinds of prices they could expect to pay if they decided “to call at [Thompson and Arnold’s] Store, near the Great Bridge.” Each of the other advertisers included an appeal to price somewhere in their notices. Some deployed elaborate language to convince consumers that they sold their wares “cheaper than any Person or Persons in Providence” or “at the very cheapest rate.” Yet readers had to at least skim the notices places by J. Mathewson, Jonathan Russell, and their counterparts to encounter those appeals to price. Associating low prices with Thompson and Arnold required nothing more than a quick glance at their advertisement.

Perhaps the deployment of this typography was merely circumstantial in this case. After all, the name of their partnership contained more characters than the much shorter Samuel Carew or Darius Sessions and could not be abbreviated conveniently like Nathl. Greene or J. & Wm. Russell. Neither situation, however, prevented advertisers and the compositor devising other solutions that still gave primacy to the name of the advertiser in other advertisements elsewhere in the same issue. Nicholas Brown and Company, for instance, listed Brown’s name in large font on the first line, followed by “and COMPANY” in middling-sized font (but strategic capitals) on the next line. “THURBER AND CAHOON” used fonts as large as those in any other advertisement for their names, inserting one word on each of the first three lines of their advertisement.

Thompson and Arnold could have adopted a similar strategy. Doing so would have adhered to custom when it came to the standard format for advertisements in the Providence Gazette and other newspapers throughout the colonies in the 1760s. Finding themselves in the same position as their competitors – making an appeal to price – the partners innovatively wrote their copy in such a way that made their marketing strategy double as the headline for their advertisement. As a result, the typography of their advertisement promoted their business in a manner unique among the paid notices that appeared throughout the same issue.

December 27

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

Dec 27 - 12:24:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (December 24, 1767).

“MEIN and FLEEMING’s Register for 1768.”

Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, inserted a short advertisement for an almanac, “MEIN and FLEEMING’s Register for 1768,” in the final issue published in 1767. More than any other aspect, the typography of this notice distinguished it from news items and advertisements that appeared on the same page and throughout the rest of the newspaper. It appeared as a single line that ran across all three columns at the bottom of the second page. Another short advertisement, that one calling on the owner to retrieve a boat recently found adrift, mirrored the position of the Fowles’ advertisement on the facing page, running across all three columns at the bottom of the third page. Had they been set into columns, each advertisement would have consisted of three lines.

Why did the Fowles choose to deviate from the usual format in this issue of their newspaper? They may have wished to draw particular attention to the almanacs for 1768 as the first day of the new year approached. In that case, they might have inserted the notice concerning the boat on the opposite page in order to provide balance. Alternately, they may have received the notice about the boat too late to integrate it into columns that had already been set, but found a creative way to include it in the issue. In that case, the advertisement for the almanac provided balance (though they exercised their privilege as printers to place it first in the issue) and supplemented their lengthier advertisement for “AMES’s Almanack” and “Bickerstaff’s curious Almanack” on the final page.

Measuring the length of the columns on each page would aid in determining the viability of either of these options as explanations for what occurred. That, however, requires access to the original copies rather than digital surrogates. Digitized editions standardize the size of every page to the dimensions of the screen on which they appear. Although metadata, including measurements, could be included in the process of producing digital editions, that would significantly increase the time and cost, ultimately further limiting access to a format intended to broaden access for historians, other scholars, and the general public. Even as librarians and archivists and the communities they serve celebrate new opportunities presented by evolving technologies, they also acknowledge that digital surrogates supplement rather than replace original sources.

November 25

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

Nov 25 - 11:25:1767 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (November 25, 1767).


The typography of John Rae’s advertisement distinguished it from others that ran in the November 25, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Most of the items for sale in his list-style advertisement appeared in capital letters, a style deployed sparingly elsewhere among the paid notices. This indicates that the advertiser sometimes exercised some influence over the format of advertisements in the eighteenth century, even though standard practice dictated that the advertisers write copy but leave it to the discretion of printers and compositors to determine the layout and other typographical aspects of advertisements.

Rae’s advertisement suggests collaboration between advertiser and compositor. Compared to newspapers printed in other colonies, especially in the largest port cities, the Georgia Gazette featured relatively little innovative typography in its advertisements. The compositor generally adhered to a particular format in order to achieve speed and efficiency when setting type. Rae may not have specifically instructed that his goods appear in capital letters; instead, he may have merely requested some unique attribute to attract the attention of potential customers. The compositor, less imaginative than counterparts in printing offices in other colonies, may have considered the capital letters an adequate solution.

The headline – “The Subscriber has for Sale” – in an ornate font also may have been an attempt to create a distinctive visual style for Rae’s advertisement. Four other advertisements in the November 25 issue included headlines: “Wanted to Hire,” “Wanted on Hire,” “To be Hired by the Month or Year,” and “Brought to the Work-house.” Each of these introduced advertisements concerning servants or slaves, again hinting that the compositor devised particular methods for setting type for specific kinds of advertisements. Rae may have disrupted that system by requesting that his headline appear in that font. Alternately, when pressed to spruce up Rae’s advertisement, the compositor may have resorted to a familiar method that did not require excessive creativity. The compositor may have been capable of only limited innovation.

The visual aspects of Rae’s advertisement raise many questions about the process that went into creating it. It may be tempting to dismiss its format as arbitrary or haphazard, but comparing it to others on the same page reveals that someone – advertiser, compositor, or the two in collaboration – made deliberate choices in creating an advertisement that differed from all others in the same issue.

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).


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.

October 27

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

Oct 27 - South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal Page 4
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (October 27, 1767).

“A choice assortment of FAMILY MEDICINES.”

In the fall of 1767 Thomas Corker took to the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to advertise a variety of items he had “Just imported” from Bristol and London. Like many other eighteenth-century merchants and shopkeepers, he listed his merchandise: lampblack, corks, several textiles, and “a choice assortment of FAMILY MEDICINES.”

As with most other newspaper advertisements of the period, Corker most likely wrote the copy but left typographical decisions to Charles Crouch, the printer, and the compositors who worked in his shop. With the exception of the occasional woodcut, the advertisements in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal had fairly uniform visual aspects. Little about the typography of one advertisement distinguished it from others.

Corker’s advertisement, however, did feature one deviation from the standard typography adopted throughout other advertisements in that newspaper. One of his products, “FAMILY MEDICINES,” appeared in capital letters near the end of the advertisement. It seems unlikely that the compositor would have chosen to highlight that particular item without specific instructions from the advertiser. Why “FAMILY MEDICINES” and not the textiles or corks or lampblack? Corker may have desired to place special emphasis on that part of his inventory, requesting that the format of the advertisement call attention to the “FAMILY MEDICINES” in one way or another even if he did not specify capital letters.

Corker’s copy also suggests that he wanted potential customers to take note of his “FAMILY MEDICINES” in particular. In addition to promoting the “choice assortment,” he also proclaimed that the “credit of which is such that renders it needless to recommend them.” He did not devote as many words to his other wares, nor did he advance appeals specific to any of the others. Yet he assured readers of the efficacy of the patent medicines he stocked, promising that they were so effective that they did not merit further comment.

Thomas Corker placed an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal in order to incite demand and increase sales of all of the goods in his shop, yet both the copy and the format suggest that he placed special emphasis on selling his “choice assortment of FAMILY MEDICINES.”

September 13

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

Sep 13 - 9:10:1767 New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 10, 1767).

“Hughes’s Night School, Commences on the 14th Instant.”

In early September 1767, Hughes turned to the New-York Journal to advertise the opening of his night school in the middle of the month. His entire notice consisted of only eight words: “Hughes’s Night School, Commences on the 14th Instant.” Given the brevity of this advertisement, especially in comparison to those placed by other schoolmasters throughout the colonies, Hughes must have assumed that the general public was already aware of all the important details, everything from the curriculum to the hours of instruction to the location.

What Hughes’s advertisement lacked in relaying information it made up for in experimenting with layout designed to attract the attention of potential students. John Holt, the printer of the New-York Journal, and the compositor had developed a fairly standard visual appearance for advertisements inserted in that newspaper. They used a single font size for news items and most of the text included in advertisements, but headlines for advertisements (most often an advertiser’s name) appeared in a significantly larger font, regardless of the length of the advertisement. The first line of the body of the advertisement often featured a font only slightly larger than that used for the remainder. Advertisements by Philip Livingston and Peter Remsen that appeared in the same column as Hughes’s advertisement fit the general pattern when it came to the graphic design of paid notices in the New-York Journal.

Sep 13 - Extra Adverts from New-York Journal
New-York Journal (September 10, 1767).

Every word and every line of Hughes’s advertisement appeared in larger font sizes. The size of “Commences on the 14th instant,” the smallest in this advertisement, paralleled that of headlines in other advertisements throughout the standard issue and the supplement. The size of “Night School” rivaled the size of the newspaper’s title in the masthead. The size of the schoolmaster’s name far exceeded anything else printed in the issue or the supplement. Hughes’s message to potential students was short and straightforward, but the visual aspects had been designed to distinguish it from everything else on the page.

Newspapers published in colonial America’s largest cities in the 1760s often had a surplus of advertising, so much that they often had to print supplements to accommodate all of them. Space was limited, causing printers and compositors to standardize some of the visual aspects, including limiting the size of most text in advertisements. On occasion, however, they experimented with other formats that would have had a much different effect on readers accustomed to a particular style. Hughes’s relatively short advertisement for his “Night School” certainly stood out on the page.