December 19

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

New-London Gazette (December 19, 1766).

“These Sermons will be immediately committed to Press, as soon as it can be known how many are subscribed for.”

Timothy Green published this advertisement to encourage “Those Gentlemen who have kindly assisted in taking in Subscriptions for Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons” to send him a list of colonists they had signed up to purchase a copy of the book once it had been printed. He also requested that others “who incline to become subscribers” inform him “as speedy therein as possible” so he could determine “what Number of Books it will be necessary to print.”

In the eighteenth century printers published many books by subscription, limiting their risk and reducing the possibility of having so many unsold copies that they could not turn a profit on a particular publication. Printers gauged interest in proposed projects through a form of advertising known as the subscription notice, which usually announced an intended publication, indicated the price, and described its content and material aspects.

While subscription notices were often printed in newspapers alongside other advertisements, this type of marketing circulated in other ways as well. Broadsides (what we would call posters today) were displayed in printer’s shops and other places. The “Gentlemen” who assisted Green may have posted subscription notice broadsides in their shops or offices. Printers sometimes sent circular letters (what we would call junk mail today) to prospective customers they suspected would have an interest in a proposed publication. Rather than write the same letter by hand multiple times, printers much more efficiently created circular letters by setting the type, printing dozens or hundreds of the same letter, and writing in the names of intended recipients in a space left blank for the salutation. By the end of the eighteenth century, subscription notices appeared on the advertising wrappers that accompanied magazines. Enterprising printers also sometimes placed subscription notices as separate inserts in magazines before distributing them to subscribers.

Modern historians use subscription notices carefully. Just because a printer issued a subscription notice did not necessarily mean that it generated enough interest to move forward with publishing the book or other proposed work. In the case of “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons,” however, Green did take the advertised book to press in 1767. Today’s advertisement did not include the full title of Joseph Fish’s The Church of Christ a Firm and Durable House: Shown in a Number of Sermons on Matth. XVI. 18. Upon this Rock I Will Build My Church, and the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It. Apparently Green’s subscription notices played a part in inciting sufficient interest to publish “Mr Fish’s Nine Sermons.”

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