February 16

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

Boston Evening-Post (February 16, 1767).

Any of those with this Mark (*) may be had by the Dozen, at a small Advance.”

Like other colonial booksellers, M. Williams imported from London most of the “good Assortment of Books” he sold. His newspaper advertisements amounted to miniature catalogs that listed dozens of titles. In most regards, his notice looked little different from those published by his competitors. To make it easier for potential customers to read and identify items of interest, each title occupied its own line. To increase the number of titles that could be listed, the advertisement was divided into two columns, making it dense yet still readable. Williams also hawked a variety of other goods (“Stationary Wares,” including paper, inkpots, quills, penknives, and sealing wax) and services (blank books made and ruled and “old Books new bound”).

In one regard, however, Williams’ advertisement differed from most others. A printing ornament preceded the majority of titles. Williams explained its meaning in a nota bene that concluded his notice: “Any of those with this Mark (*) may be had by the Dozen, at a small Advance.” This reveals that the bookseller did not operate merely as a retailer of individual books one at a time but instead sold in volume to others that then retailed the books themselves.

Given that Williams’ shop was in Salem, he most likely did not intend his advertisement to address readers of the Boston Evening-Post who resided in Boston itself. After all, residents of Boston could conveniently purchase “Books and Stationary Wares” from several local printers and booksellers. Instead of soliciting their patronage, Williams depended on the dissemination of the Boston Evening-Post throughout the city’s hinterland, which included Salem as well as smaller towns and villages. While some of the books he stocked would have been appropriate for schoolmasters to purchase in volume, Williams likely anticipated that others might find their way into shops in surrounding villages, where they would supplement other sorts of merchandise. Stressing that he sold books by the dozen may have allowed him to capture some of the market among these shopkeepers that otherwise prominent printers and booksellers in Boston would have dominated.

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