What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“LETTERS from a FARMER in PENNSYLVANIA, to the INHABITANTS of the BRITISH COLONIES.”
Guest curator Zachary Karpowich recently examined an advertisement promoting the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.” David Hall and William Sellers inserted this advertisement for a pamphlet they had published in their own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Yet Hall and Sellers were not the only printers to collect the twelve “Letters” together into a single pamphlet, nor was the Pennsylvania Gazette the only newspaper to carry advertisements for those pamphlets. Just as the “Letters” spread from colony to colony as they were reprinted from newspaper to newspaper in late 1767 and well into the spring of 1768, colonists had access to a variety of pamphlets that collected the series of essays under a single cover for their convenience and continued reference.
The American Antiquarian Society’s catalog indicates that at least four printing houses published their own edition of the “Letters” in pamphlet form in 1768. According to the imprints, residents of Philadelphia could purchase an edition “Printed by David Hall, and William Sellers” published in the spring and a second edition released later in the year. That Hall and Sellers printed more than one edition testifies to the popularity of the pamphlet. Colonists in New York could purchase an edition “Re-printed by John Holt, near the Exchange,” while residents of Boston could choose between competing editions, one “Printed and sold by Edes & Gill, in Queen Street” and another “Printed by Mein and Fleeming, and to be sold by John Mein, at the London Book-Store, north-side of King-Street.” Each of these printers also published newspapers that had reprinted the “Letters” over a series of weeks: Holt, the New-York Journal; Edes and Gill, the Boston-Gazette; and Mein and Fleeming, the Boston Chronicle. At least one other edition appeared in Philadelphia in 1769, that one described as a third edition “Printed by William and Thomas Bradford, at the London Coffee-House.” That the Bradfords produced yet another edition for readers in Philadelphia suggests that printers cultivated demand for the pamphlet and successfully disseminated the arguments about Parliament overstepping its authority advanced by John Dickinson.
Colonists beyond the major port cities could also purchase the pamphlet. Today’s advertisement ran in the New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth by Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle. It specified two locations where readers could purchase the pamphlet: “at the LONDON BOOK STORE, North Side of King Street, BOSTON, and at the Printing Office in Portsmouth.” The Fowles likely stocked the edition printed by Mein and Fleeming, considering that their advertisement reiterated the location listed in the imprint from that edition. Just as they had reprinted the “Letters” in a series of issues, the Fowles also reprinted significant portions of an advertisement previously published in another newspaper, drawing from the notice for Hall and Sellers’s edition of the pamphlet in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
The Fowles were not the only printers to advertise an edition of this pamphlet on April 22, 1768. John Holt ran an advertisement for his edition in a midweek supplement to his newspaper, the New-York Journal. He composed his own copy, however, advising potential customers that the pamphlet “fully explains and unanswerably defends the Rights of the British Colonies.” He reported that he had gathered the essays into a pamphlet “upon the Suggestion of many of the Inhabitants” of New York who recommended “that it ought to be kept in every Family, and be thoroughly consider’d, understood, and taught to the rising Generation.” Holt stressed that reading the “Letters” would inculcate a particular set of values among youth; studying the pamphlet was not the sole domain of the current generation of colonial leaders. Yet he also lamented that “the Sale of these useful Pamphlets, has hitherto been very inconsiderable, so that they are like to be a great Loss to the Printer” even though he indicated that they had been “Just published.” Holt may have exaggerated as a way to jumpstart sales, a strategy that could have been effective once he advertised that he stocked copies of the pamphlet at his printing office.
Throughout the colonies printers encouraged customers to purchase – and read – the “Letters” in order that “the Principles of our happy Constitution may be universally known and established.” The stakes were too high not to become familiar with Dickinson’s explication of the proper relationship between Parliament and colonies. Turning a blind eye to such wisdom meant that the colonists would not be prepared “to assert and maintain the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.”