March 20

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

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

Mar 20 - 3:20:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (March 20, 1766).

“All such Gentlemen as have generously offered to give Books to the Library of said COLLEGE, would be pleased to send them.”

In this advertisement a well-known university asked students and others to both return and donate books to the College Library. This was 128 years after the college was founded. When I think of Harvard University this advertisement asking for books is not what I usually think of.

Shortly after Harvard was founded and the Great and General Court ordered that it would be established in Newetowne (later renamed Cambridge). In 1638, John Harvard willed his library of approximately 400 books and his estate to the college, making him the first Harvard College benefactor.

My question when I saw this advertisement was: why would a 128 year old well respected college library ask their students in a very public way to return those books they promised or borrowed? The answer to that question: because they didn’t have many books any more. On January 24, 1764, there was a fire in the original Harvard Hall, which burned around 4,500 volumes, and left only one of their original benefactor’s books. The collection went from approximately 5,000 to 500 due to about 400 books being out on loan to students and faculty. An additional 100 new books had yet to be unpacked and were being stored in a different location.

The fire is suspected to have started in the library hearth, where the floor quickly caught fire. Due to the fact that the Massachusetts General Court was there when the fire started they claimed responsibility. Through funds supplied by the Court and numerous generous donations of funds and books, by the end of 1766 a new Harvard Hall had been built and the Harvard library had more books than it did on that cold night in January two years previously.

Beyond my curious nature this advertisement caught my eye because throughout my childhood I loved wandering throughout Boston and Cambridge. From since I can remember I have gone to the Harvard –Yale game every other year, tailgating before and eating pastrami with my family. It’s an honored and loved tradition, and one I can not wait to continue this fall. I might even take detour and stop by Harvard Hall. Go Crimson!



I appreciate the way that Elizabeth’s personal experiences enrich her appreciation of this advertisement and the story of the Harvard College library that she discovered in the process of asking questions about why this particular advertisement appeared at that particular time. As I have noted several times, the advertisements featured here often hint at hidden stories. In some instances the full details of those stories will likely never be recovered because we simply lack the necessary documents, but in this case the advertisement turned out to be just one of the many pieces of evidence that contribute to reconstructing the events of a particular event that continued to unfold in 1766.

I also like the way that this advertisement helps us to imagine the movement of goods after their initial purchase, in this case the use of books by students at Harvard College. The guest curators and I focus primarily on advertisements for consumer goods that were newly crafted or imported (along with occasional notices for used goods at vendue sales), which allows us to suggest how sellers envisioned that their wares would be used. In examining assorted appeals, we note the reasons that advertisers expected potential customers to visit their shops or engage their services.

This advertisement, however, illuminates the motivations of those who purchased books, whether they bought new ones to pass along to the library immediately, donated volumes that had been in their personal collections for some time, or gave funds for the purpose of acquiring books for the new library. A spirit of generosity animated the exchange of goods – specifically books – in the story this advertisement helps to tell.

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