What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Sam-Mill SAWS … By BENJAMIN HUMPHREYS.”
Visual images were relatively rare in eighteenth-century newspapers. Mastheads often, but not always, incorporated images that became familiar to readers, but otherwise when images did appear in newspapers, they tended to accompany advertisements. Among those images, most depicted vessels at sea, houses, horses, runaway indentured servants, or enslaved people for sale or escaping from those who held them in bondage. Variation among these images was minor, allowing printers to use them interchangeably in advertisements. Readers easily recognized them as stock images supplied by printers, images related to the content of advertisements but not created to adorn any particular advertisements. When it came to ships seeking passengers and cargo, real estate, horses “to cover” (or breed), runaway servants, and the slave trade, printers did steady business selling advertisements, making it worth their investment in stock images.
The familiarity of those images made others all the more striking when they accompanied advertisements. Even images with fairly simple designs distinguished the few advertisements that incorporated them from others that consisted entirely of text, often dense paragraphs that did not even deploy typography to allow for white space or other visual variations. When Benjamin Humphreys placed an advertisement for “Saw-Mill SAWS, Made in the NEATEST Manner” in the June 18, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, an image of a saw made it all the more noticeable to readers. Unlike the stock images that belonged to the printer, Humphreys had to commission this woodcut. Tied directly to his business, it could not be used elsewhere in the newspaper, especially since Humphreys had his name included in the image. Even among advertisers who arranged for unique images to accompany their newspaper notices, relatively few incorporated their names into the woodcuts.
The image in another advertisement in the same issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle just happened to do so. For nearly three years, George Bartram had occasionally published advertisements that included a depiction of his “sign of the NAKED BOY,” complete with his name. Much more ornate than Humphrey’s woodcut of a saw, Bartram’s woodcut featured a naked child inspecting a roll of cloth in a cartouche in the center, flanked by Bartram’s merchandise on either side. Garments on rolls of cloth appeared above the name “GEORGE” on the left and a glove draped over more rolls of cloth appeared above the name “BARTRAM” on the right. The advertising copy changed from advertisement to advertisement over the years, but Bartram’s woodcut remained consistent in identifying his business to readers.
Although clustered in a single issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, these woodcuts were exceptional visual images that not only represented particular businesses but also incorporated the names of the advertisers. Humphreys and Bartram experimented with creating logos that combined words and images to make them all the more distinctive and memorable for prospective customers.