In Which Book Catalogues Encouraged a Revolution in Reading

Last week I examined a bookseller’s newspaper advertisement that could have doubled as a broadside book catalogue. This week I would like to continue an exploration of eighteenth-century book catalogues, focusing primarily on the evolution of this method of advertising among Philadelphia’s booksellers. The earliest catalogues were broadsides that could be posted in a public place or folded and sent through the post. Later catalogues became pamphlets and were often bound at the front or back of a book, inserted in magazines, or available free of charge as stand-alone items at booksellers’ shops. Printers and booksellers sometimes concluded their newspaper advertisements by noting that customers could get a more complete sense of their stock if they visited their shop to peruse the catalogue.

The first book catalogues were typically undifferentiated lists of goods, but booksellers steadily made innovations in format to make their catalogues a distinctive medium. In 1754, David Hall issued Philadelphia’s first broadside catalogue.[1] It included 425 short author entries in two columns, the items grouped by size with octavos and duodecimos far outnumbering folios and quartos. This method privileged some of the most expensive books by listing them first, and it also allowed potential customers to visualize the physical appearance of a book. Those who valued books as a symbol of consumption could choose a folio edition of Swan’s British Architecture and Designs that would definitely draw attention when placed on a desk or table. Another customer might prefer to continue purchasing octavo-sized volumes that would have an orderly appearance on the bookshelf. Within each size category, the books were listed in continuous paragraphs. In contrast, William Bradford distributed a broadside catalogue five years later that featured only one title per line in each of its three columns. Bradford’s style of organizing his advertisement may have made for easier skimming or reading but at the expense of limiting the number of titles he could list – only half as many as featured on Hall’s catalogue.[2] Running competing bookshops in a city of less than 30,000 inhabitants, Hall and Bradford most likely examined each other’s catalogues. The two booksellers apparently believed that potential customers preferred the format of their catalogue to that of their competition as both booksellers continued publishing their catalogues in their original format for quite some time. Fifteen years after his first catalogue appeared, Hall issued a broadsheet catalogue that closely resembled his initial catalogue: two columns with the books categorized by size and set in continuous paragraphs. That same year, William and Thomas Bradford distributed a broadsheet catalogue that listed one title per line, this time divided into four columns rather than three.[3] These early catalogues sought to attract customers solely by providing a list of books in stock, a strategy repeatedly employed in the years before the Revolution. Until the 1770s, most booksellers’ catalogues followed Hall’s or Bradford’s method for listing their stock. New innovations began to appear in the last decades of the century as booksellers increasingly targeted specialized reading audiences.

As inventories increased and booksellers experimented with different styles and formats, their catalogues became more elaborate. Generally, the earliest booksellers’ catalogues were broadsides or broadsheets listing a couple of hundred authors or titles. Although some booksellers continued to issues broadsides even into the 1790s, most switched to octavo- and duodecimo-sized volumes featuring one thousand or more books listed on dozens of pages. One extraordinary volume, a 215-page duodecimo catalogue that contained nearly 2,700 titles described by Clarence Brigham as “the most extensive and elaborate catalogue published in the eighteenth century,” was issued by H. Caritat of New York in 1799.[4] Such catalogues sometimes gave the impression that a bookseller’s stock had great depth, but often he only carried one or two copies of most of the volumes listed.

In the final three decades of the eighteenth century, book catalogues became more innovative, partially as the result of attempts to appeal to readers with special interests. Broadsides and broadsheets became slender volumes consisting of dozens of pages, and printers, booksellers, and publishers began to market particular products to specific readers. Rather than grouping books according to size, booksellers began to categorize them by topic so potential customers could more easily find books that might be of interest. Alternately, some began to alphabetize the titles to assist readers looking for a particular book. Some catalogues even alphabetized titles within topics or provided excerpts or puffs that were intended to hook the reader and create desire for a book that he or she might not have previously considered purchasing. Mathew Carey emphasized that these innovations probably led to better sales. In a letter to his colleague Timothy Brundige, he offered the following advice: “If you were to take the trouble to draw out your lists in alphab. Order classing each Kind of Books together, such as law, medical, historical, religion &c it would be very complete & be much more serviceable than in the present confused mode.”[5]

Carey spoke from experience. He had inserted his “Catalogue of Books” in his own magazine, the American Museum, during its final years of publication, if not sooner. Carey’s catalogues offered a more systematic and sophisticated method of advertising than many earlier booksellers’ catalogues and newspaper notices, and his method of distribution allowed him to court customers who had already expressed an interest in the historical, political, and belle lettres essays that appeared in his magazine. Starting at twelve pages and eventually expanding to twenty-four, Carey’s catalogues further subdivided his merchandise into categories such as Law; Medical, Surgical, and Chemical Books; Religious Books; History, Voyages, and Travels; Poetry and Drama; and Books of Navigation.[6] His approach increased the chances that readers who discovered various advertisements stuffed in the magazine might take notice of the catalogue and helped potential customers to quickly find items matching their own interests. Carey de-emphasized his stationery wares and other items more than most other booksellers. His first catalogues inserted in the American Museum included short lists of printed blanks and stationery items, but mentioned no other goods. Carey eventually discontinued listing anything except books as his business endeavors became increasingly specialized.

By the end of the century, booksellers became increasingly specialized in their use of several advertising media, developing advertisements meant to target potential customers with particular interests, whether they were professionals, like doctors and lawyers, members of polite society interested in belles lettres, or merchants and sea captains. For instance, in the 1790s George Davis posted at least three broadside catalogues that featured law books exclusively.[7] Although others might find some volumes of interest, Davis directly addressed “Gentlemen of the Bar and their Students.” Curiously, broadside catalogues did not achieve the level of sophistication evident in contemporary octavo-sized multi-page catalogues by the end of the century. Rather than list his books by topic, Davis continued to divide them according to size. Other booksellers, such as Rice and Company, loosely grouped books together by topic but did not include any headings to aid potential customers in finding books or pamphlets they might find most interesting.[8]

The evolution of book catalogues in early America offers a glimpse of the intersection of the reading revolution and consumer revolution that simultaneously occurred in the eighteenth century. Advertisers sought to hasten the transformation of reading habits from intensive consideration of bibles and devotional works to extensive reading of a different kinds of books, including reading novels for pleasure. Book catalogues from the period demonstrate how booksellers, printers, and publishers classified their stock as well as suggest how their potential customers – readers – imagined and assessed their wares in new ways.


[1] David Hall, Imported in the Last Ships from London, and To Be Sold by David Hall, at the New-Printing Office, In Market-Street, Philadelphia, the Following Books (Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1754).

[2] William Bradford, A Catalogue of Books. Just Imported from London, and To Be Sold by W. Bradford, at the London-Coffee-House, Philadelphia, Wholseale and Retail. With Good Allowance for Those That Take a Quantity (Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1759).

[3] William and Thomas Bradford, Imported in the Last Vessels from London, and To Be Sold by William and Thomas Bradford, Printers, Booksellers, and Stationers, At Their Book-Store in Market-Street, Adjoining the London Coffee-House; Or By Thomas Bradford, At His House in Second-Street, One Door from Arch-Street, and Nearly Opposite the Sign of St. George, A Large and Neat Assortment of Books and Stationary (Philadelphia: [William and Thomas Bradford,] 1769); and David Hall, David Hall, At the New Printing-Office, in Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has to Dispose Of, Wholesale and Retail, the Following Books, &c. (Philadelphia: D. Hall and W. Sellers, 1769).

[4] Clarence S. Brigham, “American Booksellers’ Catalogues, 1734-1800,” in Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth, ed. Frederick R. Goff (Portland, ME: Anthoensen Press, 1951), 62.

[5] Mathew Carey to T. Brundige, 20 March 1795, Mathew Carey Letterbook, Lea & Febiger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[6] Mathew Carey, Mathew Carey’s Catalogue of Books, for August, 1792 (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, July 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey’s Catalogue of Books, for September, 1792 (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, August 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [October 1792] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, September 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [November 1792] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, October 1792, Library Company of Philadelphia; and ibid., Mathew Carey, No. 118 Market-Street, Philadelphia, Has Imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an Extensive Assortment of Books [January 1793] (Philadelphia: [Mathew Carey,] 1792), inserted in American Museum, December 1792, Michael Zinman Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[7] George Davis, Law Books (Philadelphia: 1792); ibid., Law Books — Latest Editions (Philadelphia: 1794); and ibid., Law Books — Latest Irish Editions (Philadelphia: 1795). Also see his four-page catalogue devoted solely to law books: Davis’s Law Catalogue, for 1799. Latest London and Irish Editions (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, Jr., 1799).

[8] Rice and Company, Rice and Co. Booksellers and Stationers, South Side of Market-Street, Next Door But One to Second-Street, Philadelphia; Have Imported in the Last Vessels from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, a Large and General Assortment of Books, and Stationary Ware, Which They Will Dispose Of By Wholesale and Retail on Very Moderate Terms (Philadelphia: 1789).

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