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