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