What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“At the London BOOK-STORE.”
Bookseller John Mein regularly advertised in Boston’s newspapers in the 1760s, often inserting lengthy advertisements that extended over multiple columns or even filled an entire page. Yet newspaper notices were not the only marketing media utilized by Mein and other eighteenth-century booksellers. They also used broadsides and catalogs to inform potential customers of the titles they sold.
To promote the “Grand Assortment of the most MODERN BOOKS, In every Branch of Polite LITERATURE, ARTS, and SCIENCES” at his “LONDON BOOK-STORE,” Mein distributed a small broadside in 1766. Measuring 20 x 13 cm (8 x 5 in), it could have been posted around town or passed out as a handbill. Unlike his newspapers advertisements, the broadside did not include titles of many books. Instead, Mein listed more than two dozen genres that might interest readers, from Divinity and Philosophy to Travels and Voyages to Anatomy and Midwifery. Potential customers need to visit his shop to discover which titles he stocked.
Mein adopted the opposite strategy in the fifty-two-page “CATALOGUE OF CURIOUS and VALUABLE BOOKS” he distributed the same year, listing (and numbering) 1741 different titles. For some, particularly bibles and prayer books, he also described the material aspects of the books, such as “Baskerville’s large Octavo Prayer-Book, bound in red Morocco, gilded” (#1734) and “Tate and Brady’s Psalms, fine Paper, bound in Morocco and Calf, gilded” (#1739). Mein used two different methods in categorizing his books. The first 367 were organized by size: octavo or folio. The remainder, however, fell under subject headings similar to those listed on the broadside. Under certain headings, some books were further demarcated by size. The bookseller aimed to help readers find books that corresponded to their interests, their budgets, their preferences for storing them, and their tastes for displaying them.
Mein’s newspaper advertisement melded aspects of his broadside and catalog, listing multiple titles under several categories. He also added a blurb to promote one book, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. Lest potential customers not see any books that interested them, Mein concluded by stating that he “has for Sale a grand Assortment of the best AUTHORS in evry Art and Science, and in every Branch of polite Literature.” Like other eighteenth-century booksellers, he experimented with media and organization in his efforts to market his wares. His advertising may have helped to fuel a reading revolution as colonists’ habits veered from intensive reading of devotional literature to extensive reading of many genres, including novels.