October 6

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (October 3, 1771).

“Fifes, Violins, Powder, / Lead, Shott, / Steel, &c.”

Gilbert Deblois used graphic design to increase the likelihood that his newspapers advertisements would attract the attention of prospective customers interested in the “very large Assortment of Winter Goods” available at his shop on School Street in Boston in the fall of 1771.  Rather than publish a dense block of text like most of his competitors who advertised, he instead opted for arranging the copy in the shape of a diamond.  The shopkeeper did so consistently in three newspapers printed in Boston, starting with the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette on September 30 and then continuing in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter on October 3.  The unique design likely made his advertisement notable for readers who saw it once and even more memorable for anyone who encountered variations of it in two or three newspapers.

In most instances, advertisers were responsible for generating the copy for their notices and then compositors determined the format.  On occasion, however, advertisers like Deblois made special requests, submitted instructions, or possibly even consulted with printers and compositors about how they wanted their advertisements to appear.  The compositors at the first two newspapers who ran Deblois’s advertisement took different approaches.  In the Boston Evening-Post, the text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle and formed an irregular diamond that filled the entire space purchased by the shopkeeper.  In contrast, the compositor for the Boston-Gazette used the same copy but arranged it in lines of increasing and then decreasing length to form a diamond surrounded by a significant amount of white space.  Though different, both sorts of diamonds made Deblois’s advertisements much more visible in the pages of the newspapers.  The advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury followed the latter design, but the compositor did not merely copy it from the Boston-Gazette.  The advertisement published on October 3 had a longer list of goods that the compositor had to accommodate in the design.

The copy itself did not distinguish Deblois’s advertisements from others that appeared in any of the newspapers published in Boston, but intentional choices about the format made his notices distinctive.  Deblois stocked the same merchandise “Just Imported from LONDON” as his competitors, but he used innovative design to generate interest among consumers who had many choices.

October 2

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (September 30, 1771).

“Choice Bohea, Souchon, and Hyson Tea.”

In the fall of 1771, Gilbert Deblois deployed graphic design to distinguish his newspaper advertisements from those placed by his competitors.  On September 30, he ran an advertisement with a unique format in the Boston Evening-Post.  The text ran upward at forty-five degree angles, creating an irregular diamond that filled the entire block of space he purchased in that issue.  That same day, he ran an advertisement featuring the same copy arranged in another distinctive format in the Supplement to the Boston-Gazette.  The text once again formed a diamond, that one created by centering lines of text of progressively longer and then shorter lengths.  In contrast to the advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post, this one incorporated a significant amount of white space into Deblois’s notice.

That these advertisements appeared simultaneously in two newspapers published in Boston demonstrated that Deblois carefully coordinated an advertising campaign intended to attract attention with its unusual typography.  The compositors at the Boston Evening-Post and Boston-Gazette would not have independently decided to experiment with the format of Deblois’s advertisements.  Instead, the shopkeeper must have worked with the compositors or at least sent instructions to the printing offices to express his wishes for innovative graphic design.

In most instances, advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to produce an appropriate format.  Advertisements that ran in multiple newspapers often had variations in font size, capitalization, and italics according to the preference of the compositors, even as the copy remained consistent.  On occasion, however, advertisers assumed greater control over the design of their notices, creating spectacles on the page.  Both of Deblois’s notices demanded attention from readers because they deviated visually so significantly from anything else in the newspaper.  Deblois did not have to commission a woodcut or include a variety of ornamental type in his notices in order for them to stand out from others.  He achieved that by working with the compositors to determine what they could accomplish solely by arranging the text in unexpected ways.

September 30

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

Boston Evening-Post (September 30, 1771).

“A very large Assortment of Winter Goods.”

Most advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers consisted text unadorned with images, though some did feature woodcuts depicting ships, houses, enslaved people, horses, or, even less frequently, shop signs.  Despite the lack of images, advertisers and compositors sometimes experimented with graphic design in order to draw attention to newspaper notices.  Some of those efforts were rather rudimentary.  In the September 30, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post, for instance, Hopestill Capen’s name served as the headline for his advertisement.  That was not unusual, but the size of the font was.  Larger than the names of any other merchants and shopkeepers who placed advertisements in that issue, the size of Capen’s name demanded attention for his advertisement.  Thomas Lee pursued a similar strategy with a headline proclaiming “SILKS” in a large font.

Capen and Lee may or may not have consulted with the printer or compositor about those elements of their advertisements.  They may have submitted the copy and left the design to the compositor.  Gilbert Deblois, on the other hand, almost certainly gave instructions or even spoke with the compositor concerning the unique format of his advertisement.  The text ran upward at a forty-five degree angle, distinguishing it from anything else that appeared in the pages of the Boston Evening-Post.  Deblois hawked a “very large Assortment of Winter Goods, with every other Kind imported from Great-Britain.”  In so doing, he used formulaic language that appeared in countless other advertisements in the 1760s and early 1770s.  Yet he devised a way to make his message more interesting and noticeable.  That likely required a greater investment on his part.  Advertisers usually paid for the amount of space their notices occupied, not by the word, but in this case setting type at an angle required extraordinary work on the part of the compositor.  Reorienting Deblois’s advertisement was not merely a matter of selecting a larger font, incorporating more white space, or including ornamental type for visual interest.

Deblois carried many of the same goods as Capen, Caleb Blanchard, and Nathan Frazier, all of them competitors who placed much longer advertisements listing the many items among their merchandise.  Rather than confront consumers with the many choices available to them at his shop, Deblois instead opted to incite interest for his “large Assortment of Winter Good” using graphic design to draw attention to his advertising copy.  The unique format of his advertisement made it stand out among the dozens that appeared in that issue of the Boston Evening-Post.

April 4

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

Apr 4 - 4:4:1770 South-Carolina Gazette Supplement
Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette (April 4, 1770).

SHIP-CHANDLERY.”

William Price deployed typography to attract attention to his advertisement for “BEST Bridport CANVAS, and sundry other Articles” in the April 4, 1770, supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette.  A decorative border surrounded the headline for his advertisement, “SHIP-CHANDLERY,” making it one of only two advertisements in the supplement with that additional flourish.  The other announced “SALES by the Provost-Marshal,” an advertisement that was also a regular feature in the South-Carolina Gazette.  Its headline often appeared within a decorative border, which may have given Price the idea for enhancing his advertisement.  All of this suggests that Price made arrangements with the printer or compositor to spruce up his notice, though most advertisers merely supplied copy and left format to those who labored in the printing office.  Price may not have specified which printing ornaments should enclose his headline, but he most likely did offer some direction about the visual composition of his advertisement.

The border provided visual variation in a newspaper that consisted almost entirely of text.  Some advertisements included different fonts and font sizes to draw attention, as did Price’s notice, but consistencies among them suggest that compositors made such decisions, not advertisers.  Very few visual images appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers.  In the April 4 supplement, woodcuts accompanied only five of the thirty-five advertisements.  Three of those were real estate notices, two with woodcuts depicting a house and one with a woodcut showing a tree and a field.  An advertisement about a stray horse had a woodcut of a horse.  An advertisement describing an enslaved man who escaped featured a crude woodcut of a dark-skinned person that conflated characteristics associated with Africans and indigenous Americans.  All of those woodcuts belonged to the printer, as did woodcuts of ships at sea.  Price could have chosen one of those, but they were usually associated with vessels seeking freight and passengers, not ship chandlers looking to outfit ships before they departed from port.  He could have commissioned a woodcut depicting his merchandise, but he may not have considered that worth the expense, especially if he did not suspect that canvas or cordage would translate well via that medium.

The border that enclosed “SALES by the Provost-Marshal” and decorative type often used to separate “New Advertisements,” “Advertisements,” and, sometimes, news items from the content that appeared immediately above it suggested an alternative to prospective advertisers who wanted some sort of visual component in their notices.  As they perused the pages of the South-Carolina Gazette they encountered various means of creating a distinctive format for their advertisements even when they consisted almost entirely of text.  The pages of eighteenth-century newspapers may look fairly uniform to twenty-first-century eyes, but contemporary readers surely noticed the many variations in type, especially in the advertisements.

November 8

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

Nov 8 - 11:8:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (November 8, 1769).

“A Large and Compleat ASSORTMENT of EAST-INDIA and EUROPEAN GOODS.”

James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette, had too much content to include all of the news and advertisements in his newspaper on November 8, 1769.   As a result, he issued a small supplement to accompany the standard issue, though it took a different form than most supplements distributed by printers in eighteenth-century America.

For context, first consider the format of a standard issue of the Georgia Gazette and most other newspapers of the period. They usually consisted of only four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and folding it in half. The Georgia Gazette featured two columns per page; most newspapers published in the 1760s had three columns, but a select few had four columns. When printers had excess content, they either inserted a note that certain items would appear in the following issue or they distributed some sort of supplement. Supplements usually consisted of two pages of the same size as the standard issue; in terms of production and appearance, they amounted to half of a standard issue. Given the expense and scarcity of paper, very rarely did printers distribute supplements that had content on only one side but left the other side blank. Those additional pages usually had some sort of title, most often Supplement, but on occasion Postscript or Extraordinary. The last two applied most often to additional pages that featured news (rather than advertising) that arrived in the printing office too late for inclusion in the standard issue.

The supplement that accompanied the November 8, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette deviated greatly from most other supplements. It consisted of seven advertisements printed on only one side of a smaller sheet than the standard issue. (The size of the sheets cannot be determined from consulting digital surrogates in databases of eighteenth-century newspapers, but experienced researchers easily recognize when the relative sizes of newspaper pages differ based on several features.) The compositor arranged those seven advertisements in an unusual manner. Three ran in a vertical column; rotated ninety degrees to the left, the other four ran in two horizontal columns. All seven appeared in the previous issue of the Georgia Gazette. The compositor adopted this unusual format for the supplement in order to use type that had already been set while maximizing the amount of content that would appear on a smaller sheet. In another variation from the norm, the supplement did not include a masthead or title that associated it with the Georgia Gazette. Only a notation in the lower right corner, “[No. 318.],” identified it as a companion to the November 8 edition, labeled “No. 318” in the masthead on the first page of the standard issue.

In recent months, Johnston had sometimes resorted to postponing publication of paid notices and other times issued miniature supplements. Advertising represented an important source of revenue for colonial printers, which likely prompted Johnston to invest the time and resources required to produce those supplements and disseminate notices submitted to his printing office. He needed to do this while still covering the news for his subscribers, striking a balance between the two kinds of content.

September 27

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

Sep 27 - 9:27:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 27, 1769).

“Pigtail tobacco,
Playing cards,
Box coffee mills.”

William Belcher and the partnership of Rae & Somerville both inserted advertisements in the September 27, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Each relied on consumer choice as the primary means of marketing their wares, though Belcher did make a nod toward low prices as well. Like many other merchants and shopkeepers that advertised in newspapers published throughout the colonies, Belcher and Rae & Somerville listed dozens of items available at their shops, cataloging their inventory to demonstrate an array of choices for consumers. Both concluded their advertisements with a promise of even more choices that prospective customers would encounter when visiting their shops. Belcher promoted “a variety if delph and tinware,” while Rae & Somerville resorted to “&c. &c. &c.” (the eighteenth-century version of “etc., etc., etc.”).

Despite this similarity, the advertisers adopted different formats for presenting their wares in the pages of the public prints. Rae & Somerville went with the most common method: a dense paragraph of text that lumped together all of their merchandise. Belcher, on the other hand, organized his goods into two columns with only one item per line. This created significantly more white space that likely made it easier for prospective customers to read and locate items of interest. Belcher and Rae & Somerville listed a similar number of items, yet Belcher’s advertisement occupied nearly twice as much space on the page as a result of the typography. Considering that most printers charged by the amount of space an advertisement required rather than the number of words in the advertisement, Belcher made a greater investment in his advertisement. Presumably he believed that this would attract more attention from prospective customers and garner better returns. In making this determination, Belcher relied on the skills of the compositor in the printing office to execute his wishes.

In general, advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers appear crowded by twenty-first-century standards, especially since they relied almost entirely of text and featured few images compared to modern print advertising. Advertisers, printers, and compositors, however, devised ways of distinguishing the visual appearance of advertisements that consisted solely of text. They experimented with different formats in effort to vary the presentation of vast assortments of goods offered to the general public for their consumption.

September 5

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

Sep 5 - 9:5:1769 Essex Gazette
Essex Gazette (September 5, 1769).

“BLANKS.”

Like printers in other towns and cities in the colonies, Samuel Hall sought to generate revenue by taking advantage of his access to the press to promote his own enterprises in the Essex Gazette. In addition to publishing a newspaper, Hall also produced “BLANKS” at his printing office in Salem. Colonists used blanks (or printed forms, as they would be described today) for a variety of common commercial and legal purposes. They saved significant time compared to writing out the same transaction repeatedly. In some instances, resorting to blanks allowed colonists to sidestep hiring a conveyancer or lawyer to draw up documents.

Most printers simply announced that they stocked blanks of all sorts at their printing offices. On occasion, however, some printers listed the different kinds of blanks, providing a better glimpse of how purchasing them could increase efficiency and streamline all variety of transactions. In his advertisement, Hall listed sixteen different blanks for purposes that ranged from “Apprentices Indentures” to “Bills of Lading” to “Short Powers of Attorney.”

Through his typographical choices, he made sure that readers of the Essex Gazette would notice his advertisement. Many eighteenth-century advertisements that listed goods for sale, especially those that ran in the Essex Gazette in the late 1760s, clustered the items together in dense paragraphs. Hall’s advertisement, on the other hand, listed only one type of blank per line, making it easier to read and identify forms of particular interest. Hall also selected a larger font for his advertisement than appeared throughout the rest of that edition of the Essex Gazette. His notice occupied nearly twice as much space as any other in the same issue. The combination of white space incorporated into Hall’s advertisement and the oversized type made it one of the most striking items on a page that included both news and paid notices. Another advertisement featured a woodcut depicting a ship at sea, but it appeared immediately above Hall’s advertisement for blanks, leading directly into it.

Hall promoted other aspects of his business in the Essex Gazette, hoping to generate revenue beyond subscriptions and advertising fees. In the process, he effectively used graphic design to draw attention to other products from his printing office, an array of blanks for commercial and legal purposes. His access to the press gave him opportunities to experiment with the format of his own advertisements to an extent not available to other colonists.

August 26

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

Aug 26 - 8:26:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (August 26, 1769).

Once more!

In the August 26, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette, Knight Dexter and Samuel Nightingale, Jr., both placed advertisements calling on those who owed them money to settle accounts or risk being sued. When it came to attracting the attention of readers, however, Dexter deployed much more effective typography that included a striking headline.

Compare the two advertisements, staring with the standard format adopted by Nightingale. “ALL Persons indebted to SAMUEL NIGHTINGALE, jun. by Book, Note, &c. are once more earnestly intreated to make immediate Payment.” The advertisement continued from there with the threat of legal action and a shorter paragraph that promoted the “large Assortment of European and West-India GOODS” in stock at Nightingale’s shop. The shopkeeper’s name and “GOODS” were the only words that appeared in all capitals. None of the text in the advertisement ran in a larger font. Visually, little distinguished it from other advertisements or other content in the issue.

On the other hand, Dexter’s advertisement opened with a headline that demanded attention: “Once more!” The font for the headline was even larger than that used for “PROVIDENCE GAZETTE” in the masthead on the front page. Elsewhere in the issue, only prolific advertisers Joseph Russell and William Russell used a font notable for being larger than anything else on the page; their names ran in font the same size as “PROVIDENCE GAZETTE” in the masthead. “Once more!” appeared in the largest font by far on the third page and the second page that faced it, making it difficult to miss. Such unique typography likely incited curiosity and prompted readers to investigate further and find out more about the advertisement.

Although unusual, the typography was not completely unique. In December 1768, Joseph Olney, Jr., and Jonathan Arnold, executors of the estate of Joseph Smith, ran an advertisement calling on creditors to settle their debts and advising the community of an estate auction. The advertisement featured the “Once more!” headline in oversized font. It ran in the Providence Gazette. Perhaps Dexter, who advertised frequently in that newspaper, remembered that advertisement and incorporated its distinctive feature into his own advertising several months later. Alternately, perhaps the printer or compositor recommended the striking device to Dexter when he expressed concern about attracting as much attention to the advertisement as possible. Either way, this innovation that originated in the Providence Gazette did not disappear after its first use. It reappeared within a year, heralding a practice that became common in newspaper advertising in the nineteenth century.

June 4

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

Jun 4 - 6:1:1769 South-Carolina Gazette
South-Carolina Gazette (June 1, 1769).

“BREW-HOUSE.”

John Calvert and Company placed a brief advertisement in the June 1, 1769, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette to advise readers that they sold “ALE, TABLE and SHIP BEER.” The partners also offered a convenient service for their customers: delivery to “any part of the town,” provided that the buyer purchased at least five gallons.

Decorative typography, however, rather than the copy accounted for the most notable part of Calvert and Company’s advertisement. Like some other advertisers, they included a headline to draw attention: “BREW-HOUSE.” Unlike other advertisers, they arranged for a decorative border to enclose the headline, distinguishing the advertisement from almost every other in the South-Carolina Gazette. One other notice did feature a similar layout, an advertisement for the “Sloop MONTAGU” to be sold at public auction. Its headline announced “SALE by the Provost-Marshal,” also enclosed in decorative type.

The South-Carolina Gazette frequently featured such advertisements for goods, property, or enslaved men, women, and children seized by the provost marshal and to be sold to settle debts or resolve other legal disputes. Such notices benefited from the unique format, the headline in the decorative border, but other advertisements for goods and services placed by merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and others did not incorporate such distinctive typography. Although the compositor could have made the decision independently, this suggests that Calvert and Company negotiated for that particular element of their advertisement, realizing that the headline and border would make it more visible among the advertisements that filled the final pages of the South-Carolina Gazette. Alternately, the partners could have commissioned a woodcut to spruce up their advertisement, but that likely would have incurred greater expense compared to utilizing decorative type the printer already had in hand.

In general, advertisers generated copy for newspaper notices in eighteenth-century America, but printers and compositors made decisions about graphic design. Calvert and Company’s notice suggests that advertisers sometimes observed distinctive design elements that they wished to incorporate into their own advertisements. Some likely suspected that distinctive visual elements made advertisements more effective and yielded a greater return on their investment, prompting them to borrow styles that they regularly encountered when they perused the newspapers.

April 3

GUEST CURATOR: Aidan Griffin

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

Boston Chronicle (April 3, 1769).

“A GRAND CONCERT of VOCAL and INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC.”

Music was popular in colonial America, just like it is today. In April 1769 “A GENTLEMAN from LONDON” performed a “GRAND CONCERT” in Boston. What kind of music did colonists hear? David K. Hildebrand lists four categories: theater music, dance music, church music, and military music. In early America, colonists heard “ballads, dance tunes, folk songs and parodies, comic opera arias, drum signals, psalms, minuets, and sonatas.” Which instruments were present in eighteenth-century America? Hilbebrand says that violins (fiddles) and flutes were the most popular, “[d]rums and trumpets, trombones and French horns, cellos, violas da gamba, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, glass armonicas, hammered dulcimers, [and] organs” were all played in the colonies, “in varying numbers. Women did not usually play these instruments. Hildebrand states, “A very tight self-regulation of activity in the name of ‘maintaining reputation’ limited musical options for women.” Wealthy women played harpsichords and English guitars. To learn more, visit “What was Colonial or ‘Early American’ Music?”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Boston Evening-Post (April 3, 1769).

The promoters of a “GRAND CONCERT of VOCAL and INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC” scheduled for April 14, 1769, did not confine their marketing efforts to the pages of the Boston Chronicle. On the same day, that this advertisement ran in that newspaper it also appeared in the Boston Evening-Post and the Boston-Gazette, increasing the number of readers and prospective patrons that would encounter it and consider attending.

Boston-Gazette (April 3, 1769).

These advertisements demonstrate an important aspect of the division of labor and creative input in early American advertising: advertisers generated copy and compositors determined the design elements. The copy in each iteration of the “GRAND CONCERT” advertisement remained constant, suggesting that the advertiser wrote the text, copied it several times, and submitted those copies to the various printing offices around Boston. The compositors then exercised their own discretion concerning how the advertisement looked on the page when they set the type. The version in the Boston Chronicle, for instance, announced a “GRAND CONCERT,” putting those words in all capitals and a font larger than almost everything else in the advertisement. “MUSIC” appeared in the largest font, making it the focal point of the advertisement. In contrast, “Grand Concert,” this time not in all capitals, was in the smallest font used in the advertisement in the Boston-Gazette. There, “Mr. HARTLEY” and “Vocal and Instrumental Musick” appeared in the largest font. The compositor for the Boston Evening-Post adopted yet another strategy, making “A grand CONCERT” the most prominent words in the advertisement. Other variations included different uses of italics and capitalization elsewhere in the advertisements as well as a manicule that appeared in the Boston Chronicle but not in the other two newspapers.

This division was not a hard and fast rule. On occasion, similarities in graphic design in multiple newspapers suggested that advertisers provided instructions or negotiated for particular design elements, but generally they did not. Much more often, compositors made copy submitted by advertisers conform to their own graphic design preferences, creating advertisements from multiple advertisers within a single publication that looked more similar to each other than advertisements from a single advertiser in multiple newspapers. In other words, the visual qualities of an advertisement depended greatly on which compositor set the type and which newspaper published that advertisement.