In Which a Newspaper Advertisement Could Have Been a Broadside Book Catalogue

The guest curators from my Public History class often do not choose to feature the advertisements that I want them to select! This is simultaneously one of the most rewarding, most exciting, and most frustrating aspects of collaborating with these junior colleagues. They have prompted me to take a second look at advertisements that I otherwise would have dismissed. They have forced me to think about certain advertisements in new ways, to develop new modes of analysis instead of relying on earlier classifications that ranked some advertisements as more viable for this project than others. In the best sense of faculty/student collaboration, we are learning from each other and we are collectively learning more about the colonial period.

Still, I sometimes find it extremely frustrating when a guest curator skips over a really cool advertisement that I want to feature and explore in greater depth. (In all fairness, during those periods that guest curators are not working on the project I often find myself in the position of skipping over some awesome advertisements – or looking ahead to see which ones were published more than one week so I know I’ll have a second chance to incorporate a second choice in the near future.) I encountered one of those advertisements this week as I was browsing through the April 3, 1766, issue of the Massachusetts Gazette to see the context in which one of the featured advertisements was originally published.

Apr 8 - John Mein Advertisement 4:3:1766 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 3, 1766).

Look at this wonderful advertisement from bookseller John Mein! Except for a small notice in the upper left corner, Mein’s advertisement covered the entire page of this issue. What an investment for him to make! This was not the first time in 1766 that an entire page of the Massachusetts Gazette was devoted to listing Mein’s stock. I couldn’t just let it pass by once again.

This item intrigues me in part because it challenges the concept of genre when it comes to eighteenth-century advertising and print culture. Technically, it is indeed a newspaper advertisement, but it is a very particular sort of newspaper advertisement that replicates a book catalogue, specifically a broadside book catalogue. Similar items circulated separately as standalone book catalogues in the eighteenth-century. This raises an interesting question: what are the parameters for determining what qualifies as a book catalogue? If this newspaper advertisement is an alternate form of a book catalogue, then does any advertisement that includes a list of books also count as a book catalogue? Are there a minimum number of books that must be listed? Or a minimum amount of space that the advertisement must cover on the page?

Perhaps it is worth spending a few moments exploring eighteenth-century book catalogues, one of those advertising media – along with trade cards, billheads, furniture labels, and other printed items – that supplemented newspaper advertising. Among their other innovations and marketing strategies, printers and booksellers introduced the consuming public to catalogue shopping as a way to try to attract customers. Participants in the book trade on both sides of the Atlantic frequently compiled a list of titles available for sale and distributed them to potential customers in a catalogue. Philadelphia printer, publisher, and bookseller Mathew Carey certainly believed in the benefits of distributing catalogues to attract potential customers of all backgrounds. Writing to bookseller N. Magruder in March of 1796, Carey expressed his regret that “sales have so considerably diminished” in his colleague’s town, but he also offered encouragement that “the distribution of the Catelogues will give a new spring to the business.”[1] Similarly, a year earlier he informed James Arthur that “if you draw me out a list of your books, I shall have some catalogues printed for you to distribute throughout the country, which will probably increase your sales considerably.”[2] Carey apparently trusted that the catalogues would indeed drum up new business for Arthur, in turn generating additional orders from and profits for his supplier in Philadelphia. Carey seemed so sure of the eventual benefits of using the catalogues to market Arthur’s stock that he promised to print and send the catalogues at “no charge” if only his associate would follow his instructions in regards to drawing up a list.

Robert B. Winans has identified 286 extant American book catalogues that circulated in the colonies and the young republic during the eighteenth century, as well as an additional four hundred unlocated catalogues identified by earlier bibliographers.[3] Winans groups these catalogues into several categories, including bookseller’s catalogues, social library catalogues, and college library catalogues. The catalogues from three of his categories are of immediate relevance to the marketing of books in early America: booksellers’ catalogues (140 titles), auction catalogues (22 titles) and publishers’ catalogues (6 titles).

Excluding catalogues published by libraries and colleges, the catalogues intended to market books and other printed materials to the general public amount to just over half of the book catalogues printed in eighteenth-century America. Of these, nearly half were distributed during the final decade of the century, and only eleven predate the 1750s. After mid-century the number of catalogues published each decade steadily increased, with a slight decline only during the 1770s, most likely as the result of the war. Not surprisingly, booksellers in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York distributed the vast majority of these catalogues. Catalogues from Philadelphia accounted for more than the other two cities combined. The catalogues issued in smaller towns tended to come from social and circulating libraries, but sometimes booksellers in places like Petersburgh, Virginia, used catalogues to inform the public of their wares.

Next week I would like to examine the evolution of American book catalogues during the eighteenth century. For now, if you were unaware that book catalogues even existed in early America I hope that John Mein’s newspaper advertisement – in its similarities to broadside book catalogues – opens up a method of advertising that you had not previously considered. Catalogue shopping became extremely popular in the late nineteenth century. Innovative as it was at that time, especially when linked with delivery via the postal service, catalogues themselves date back to a much earlier period.


[1] Mathew Carey to N. Magruder, 13 March 1796, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[2] Mathew Carey to James Arthur, 14 January 1795, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[3] Robert D. Winans, A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800 (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1981).

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