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.

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.