August 5

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

Aug 5 - 8:5:1768 Connecticut Journal
Connecticut Journal (August 5, 1768).

“colours, Six quarter|London quality’s|common, Spike do”

Although many eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for consumer goods took the form of long lists delivered in dense paragraphs, some advertisers and compositors experimented with other formats that made advertisements easier to read. Listing only one or two items per line better highlighted each item; the white space aided in directing readers to those goods that most interested them. This strategy, however, reduced the number of items that could be included in the same amount of space. Advertisers had to choose between listing fewer goods or paying for advertisements that occupied greater amounts of space in newspapers.

Getting creative with typography allowed for another choice: dividing an advertisement into columns and listing one item per line per column. When undertaken by a skilled compositor, this strategy still introduced sufficient white space to significantly improve readability while doubling or tripling, depending on the number of columns, the number of goods that appeared in a neatly organized list. List-style advertisements that featured columns usually had only two, but occasionally compositors demonstrated that it was possible to effectively incorporate three columns.

The success of this strategy depended on the skills of the compositor. An advertisement placed by Samuel Broome and Company in the August 5, 1768, edition of the Connecticut Journal demonstrates that experimenting with the graphic design elements of newspaper advertisements did not necessarily produce positive results. In an advertisement that filled an entire column, Broome and Company made an appeal to consumer choice by listing scores of items they sold at their store in New York. The compositor divided the advertisement into three columns, but apparently nobody affiliated with the production of the advertisement – neither Broome and Company when writing the copy nor the compositor when setting the type – insisted that it should list only one item per line per column. Instead, the advertisement featured the dense paragraph format common to so many newspaper advertisements, but divided into three narrow columns. Not only did this not make the contents any easier for prospective customers to read, the lack of space devoted to separating columns made the advertisement even more confusing and difficult to decipher.

While it is possible that the strange format may have attracted some attention, the challenges inherent in reading Broome and Company’s advertisement likely did not prompt potential customers to examine it closely, especially not casual readers who did not already have an interest in some of the goods that Broome and Company carried (if they could only find them in that disorienting list). Good typography helped to develop interest and perhaps incite demand for consumer goods listed in eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, but clumsy typography that made it more difficult for readers to peruse some advertisements likely made those advertisements even less effective than if they had simply resorted to the traditional dense paragraph format.

July 25

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

Jul 25 - Connecticut Courant 7:25:1768
Connecticut Courant (July 25, 1768).


When Ephraim Smith, “an assigned Servant,” ran away from Dr. Eliot Rawson of Middletown in the summer of 1768, the doctor placed an advertisement in the Connecticut Courant in hopes that someone would “take up said Runaway, and secure him in any of his Majesty’s Goals.” Once Smith had been captured and committed to jail, Rawson pledged to pay a reward as well as other expenses. One aspect of Rawson’s advertisement especially distinguished it from other notices concerning runaway servants, apprentices, and slaves. The headline featured unique typography, the word “RUN-AWAY” in capital letters printed upside down.

Was this intentional? Or was it merely an error made by the compositor? If it was an error, nobody associated with the runaway notice – not the advertiser, not the compositor, not the printers of the Connecticut Courant – considered it consequential enough to remedy. The advertisement ran for three weeks, the standard time specified in rate structure listed in the colophon, before being discontinued. Throughout its entire run it likely attracted attention as a result of the upside down text that introduced the description of Smith and the reward offered by Rawson.

The compositor certainly had opportunities to correct the error. The advertisement first appeared in the July 11 edition, at the top of the center column and immediately below the masthead on the front page. It moved to different positions on the fourth page in the next two issues, indicating that the compositor viewed and handled the type.

Even if the headline initially appeared upside down as a mistake, perhaps everyone involved considered it a fortuitous one and intentionally chose not to reset the type in the first line of the advertisement. After all, it made Rawson’s notice difficult to miss on a page that consisted almost entirely of densely text. An advertisement for a runaway servant might not have merited a second glance by readers who had previously encountered it in another edition, but the incongruity of the upside down text in all capitals and a larger font demanded subsequent notice. It forcefully reminded readers to keep their eyes open for the delinquent Smith when they might otherwise have passed over the advertisement as old news.

Whether intentional or an error, the unique headline produced benefits that relied on the visual elements of the advertisement rather than the copy, making it unnecessary or undesirable to flip the headline to the proper orientation in subsequent iterations of the advertisement. Especially in the absence of visual images, typography played an important role in the quest to have readers take note of newspaper advertisements.

June 19

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

Jun 19 - 6:16:1768 Boston Weekly News-Letter
Boston Weekly News-Letter (June 16, 1768).

“A great Variety of Callicoes.”

Even though he advertised many of the same goods as other merchants and shopkeepers who placed notices in Boston’s newspapers in June 1768, Samuel Fletcher attempted to attract attention to his wares via the visual design of his advertisement in the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Eighteenth-century advertisers often listed an assortment of goods that comprised their inventory, informing potential customers of a vast array of choices to suit their tastes and budgets. Most merchants and shopkeepers who published such advertisements simply listed their merchandise in dense paragraphs. Others experimented, perhaps with the encouragement of printers and compositors who better understood the possibilities, with arranging their goods in columns, listing only one or two items per line, in order to make the entire advertisement easier for readers to peruse.

Usually list-style advertisements broken into columns featured only two columns, but Fletcher’s advertisement in the June 16, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter had three, distinguishing it from others that appeared in the same publication that week. (Fletcher’s advertisement was the only one divided into columns in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, but two others in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette used columns to organize “A great Variety of English and India Goods.” For the purposes of this examination of these advertisements, I have classified Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter as only one publication because they were printed on a single broadsheet folded in half to create four pages, two of which comprised Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette and the other two the Boston Weekly News-Letter. Whether the boundaries between the two were permeable when it came to inserting advertisements requires further investigation, but Draper printed both and the same compositors presumably set type for both.) Caleb Blanchard and Samuel Eliot inserted lengthy advertisements that extensively listed scores of items, each advertisement divided down the middle to create two columns. Other newspapers published in Boston in the late 1760s often included advertisements that used this format, making it familiar to readers in the city and its hinterlands. Very rarely, however, did advertisements feature three columns.

As a result, the visual aspects of Fletcher’s advertisement made it stand out from others, even if nothing else about the list of goods distinguished it from the notices placed by his competitors. Fletcher made a brief appeal to price, noting that he “Sells cheap for Cash,” but primarily relied on the graphic design of his advertisement to direct readers to his advertisement as part of his effort to convince potential customers to visit his shop “Near the Draw-Bridge, BOSTON.”

June 3

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

Jun 3 - 6:3:1768 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (June 3, 1768).

“Mens and womens black and white lamb gloves.”

Thanks to unique typographical features, Richard Champney’s advertisement for “A general & good assortment of English & India goods” stood out among those published in the June 3, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. Like several of his competitors, Champney promoted his merchandise by listing dozens of items, prompting prospective customers to imagine the extensive variety he offered them, everything from “White and yellow coat and breast buttons” to “A large assortment of white wax necklaces” to “China, coffee, and tea cups and saucers.” Rather than publish his list in the form of a dense paragraph justified on both the left and right, Champney opted instead to name a limited number of items on each line and justify only the left margin. Especially given the length of his advertisement – more than half a column and twice as long as any other advertisement for consumer goods and services in the same issue – this format aided readers in distinguishing among his sweeping inventory, whether reading or skimming.

This layout may very well have been the work of the compositor rather than the result of a request by the advertiser, but other graphic design elements suggest that Champney at least consulted with those who produced the newspaper. For instance, the sparing use of italics called attention to a few items, including “A good assortment of dark Patches; blue and white dit[to]” and “A good assortment of Buckles.” One line appeared only partially in italics: “Window glass, and good assortment of Crockery Ware.” The compositor would have had no reason to randomly alter the format for those items; it seems more likely that Champney instructed that they receive some sort of special attention, not unlike “BOHEA TEA,” the only item that appeared in capitals. The white space that resulted from grouping like items together and proceeding to the next line without justifying the right margin increased the readability of the advertisement, making it more likely that prospective customers would notice the items that merited particular attention.

At a glance, Champney’s advertisement looked quite different than the other contents of the New-Hampshire Gazette, whether advertisements or news items. The format most resembled poetry, sometimes inserted in colonial newspapers as a transition between news selected by the editors and paid notices submitted by advertisers. Experimenting with the format may have drawn more eyes to the advertisement, prompting readers to scan it closely enough to determine that it was something other than the ode they anticipated. By the time they figured out it was not a poem, Champney had introduced them to some of the merchandise available at his shop.

May 7

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

May 7 - 5:7:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 7, 1768).


How much influence did eighteenth-century advertisers exert when it came to designing their advertisements? This notice placed by prolific advertisers Joseph Russell and William Russell complicates the usual answer to that question.

In most instances advertisers submitted copy and left it to compositors to determine format. The publication of the same advertisement in multiple newspapers with consistent copy but significant deviations in layout, font size, and other visual aspects testifies to the division between advertisers as copywriters and compositors as designers. Yet on relatively rare occasions some advertisements retained specific visual elements, such as a decorative border, across multiple publications, indicating that an advertiser did indeed have a hand in determining the format. In general, most colonial newspapers exhibited an internal logic when it came to the appearance of advertisements. Compositors tended to standardize the appearance of paid notices within their publication depending on genre (consumer goods and services, legal notices, runaway slaves, for example), even as the copy differed from advertisement to advertisement. Advertisers often resorted to formulaic language and accepted patterns for including information, contributing to that standardization of visual elements.

The advertisements in the Providence Gazette, however, displayed far less consistency when it came to graphic design. Compared to counterparts at other newspapers, the compositor seems to have been much more interested in experimenting with how to use type to create distinctive advertisements even when those advertisements were comprised entirely of text. Does the compositor deserve exclusive credit for such innovations? Or did the variations emerge as the result of consultations with advertisers?

Although the advertisement the Russells placed in the May 7, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette does not provide any definitive answers, its various elements suggest some level of collaboration. It featured a headline that listed a product rather than the names of the advertisers. Their names appeared at the end of the notice, quite unusual for advertisements that promoted consumer goods and services. The dual columns listing their wares differed from the structure of most, but not all, other advertisements recently published in that newspaper. The Russells may have worked closely with the compositor. Alternately, they may have noticed how the compositor experimented with type in previous issues of the Providence Gazette and decided to alter the copy they submitted in order to facilitate further innovations. Even if they did not directly consult the compositor, they may have been inspired to pursue their own experiment in composing copy to see how those advertisements would then appear in print. Whether initiated by compositors or advertisers, one innovation in the appearance of paid notices in the Providence Gazette may have sparked a series of other innovations that resulted in advertisements for consumer goods and services in that newspaper exhibiting greater distinctiveness among themselves compared to the static appearance of most advertisements published in other newspapers.

April 23

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

Apr 23 - 4:23:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 23, 1768).


The compositor who labored “at the PRINTING-OFFICE, the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” in the spring of 1768 experimented with the typography for several advertisements that ran in the Providence Gazette.  This notice for “A most neat and general Assortment of SPRING and SUMMER GOODS” sold by frequent advertisers Joseph and William Russell incorporated the most significant variations in font size, but several others also featured headlines printed in oversized fonts relative to the remainder of the dense content that appeared throughout the rest of the Providence Gazette.  In the Russells’ advertisement, the word “GOODS” was printed in all capitals in the largest font and spaced to fill an entire line on its own. Their names, also all capitals (except the abbreviation for William) appeared in a slightly smaller font and the word “JUST IMPORTED” in a font still slightly smaller.  Almost every line of their advertisement featured font sizes noticeably larger than those used in the bulk of advertisements and news items in the same issue.  In the late 1760s the Providence Gazetteregularly published some of the most innovative and experimental typography in its advertisements compared to other newspapers printed elsewhere in the colonies.  The same advertisement likely would have been condensed to just a few lines in most other publications.

Although the Russells’ notice contained the most variation in font size and spacing, a few other advertisements also had headlines composed in larger font that distinguished them from the rest and drew readers’ eyes.  “THURBER AND CAHOON” occupied three lines, with the names of the partners in the same size font as “GOODS” in the Russells’ advertisement.  The words “A FARM” appeared in all capitals and the same size font in a notice placed by John Lyon and Benjamin Lyon.  In their advertisements, the names of Nathaniel Jacobs and James Arnold also appeared in the largest font, but not in all capitals. Still, the size of the text made their advertisements particularly easy to spot on a page of densely formatted text. Although some of the other advertisements had their own headlines in fonts slightly larger than most of the text, none of the news items had headlines or otherwise distinctive typography to steer readers to them.  Whether the compositor deserves sole credit for the innovative visual elements of those advertisements cannot be determined from examining the advertisements alone. One or more advertisers may have collaborated with the compositor, prompting others to request layouts that imitated what they saw in the notices published their competitors.  Either way, the visual presentation of advertising in the Providence Gazettediffered significantly from the visual presentation of news items.  This suggests that advertising led the way in reconceptualizing the ways in which the appearance of text on the page directed readers to particular content in newspapers.

March 24

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

Mar 24 - 3:24:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (March 24, 1768).

“Work will be taken in either at said Shop, or by Edward Wentworth, at Milton Bridge.”

In the early spring on 1768, Theophilus Chamberlain, a clothier, turned to the public prints to announce that he “HAS opened Shop near the Sign of the White-Horse in BOSTON.” Like many other artisans in the garment trades, he promoted both his skill and his prices, pledging that he did “the Clothier’s Business in the best and cheapest Manner.” Perhaps realizing that this did not sufficiently distinguish him from his competitors, Chamberlain supplemented those appeals by offering prospective customers a choice for dropping off and picking up textiles and garments. In a nota bene, he advised that “Work will be taken in either at said Shop, or by Edward Wentworth, at Milton Bridge; and may be had again at either Place as the Owner may choose.” By extending these options, the clothier marketed convenience to his clients. He acknowledged that his location might be attractive to some, but out of the way for others. In an effort to increase his clientele he made arrangements to serve them at two locations.

The typography of the advertisement highlighted the additional appeal made in the nota bene, placing special emphasis on the convenience that Chamberlain provided that his competitors did not. While the graphic design of the advertisement – indenting the entire nota bene so the additional white space on a page of dense text drew more attention to it – likely drew more eyes, it does not appear that Chamberlain made particular arrangements concerning the format of the advertisement. The advertisement immediately below it also featured a short nota bene and identical decisions concerning the layout.

Chamberlain carefully crafted the copy for his advertisement to entice readers of the Massachusetts Gazette to hire him to dress their textiles and garments, finishing them so as to give a nap, smooth surface, or gloss, depending on the fabric. He underscored price, his skill, and, especially, the convenience of multiple locations. Fortuitously for Chamberlain, the typography of the advertisement amplified the most unique of his appeals. Some of the innovation of his advertisement was intentional, but other aspects that also worked to his benefit seem to have been merely circumstantial since they depended on decisions made by the compositor independently of the advertiser.