What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“For a more particular description I refer to my printed catalogue.”
In the spring of 1768 William Semple advertised “A LARGE assortment of MERCHANDIZE” recently imported from Glasgow and Liverpool. Although he enumerated a few of those items, such as “Silk gauzes of all kinds” and “Scotch threads,” he devoted most of the space in his advertisement to listing dozens of titles from among “a great collection of BOOKS.” He concluded by inviting prospective customers to consult his “printed catalogue” for “a more particular description” of his inventory of books.
Semple did not rely on newspaper advertisements alone to promote the books he sold. Like many other eighteenth-century printers and booksellers, he distributed a catalog intended to entice prospective customers by informing them of the various books, pamphlets, plays, and other printed items available. A reading revolution took place in the eighteenth century: habits shifted from intensive reading of the Bible and devotional materials to extensive reading from among many genres. Book catalogs played a role in fueling that reading revolution by drawing attention to titles that consumers might not otherwise have considered purchasing.
In this case, Semple offered few details about his catalog other than noting that it was printed rather than a manuscript list. Some booksellers advised that they sold their book catalogs for nominal fees, but Semple did not indicate that was the case. He may have distributed his catalogs gratisin hopes that doing so would yield a higher return on his investment. His advertisement also does not reveal if his catalog was a broadside or a pamphlet. He simply stated that a “printed catalogue” existed as a supplement to his newspaper advertisements.
In A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800, Robert B. Winans has compiled a list of 286 extant American book catalogs published before the nineteenth century. Booksellers’ catalogs and publishers’ catalogs accounted for just over half, with social library catalogs, auction catalogs, circulating library catalogs, and college library catalogs comprising the remainder. In addition to the 286 book catalogs with at least one surviving copy, Winans includes entries for others identified from newspaper advertisements and other sources. He suspects, however, that “many if not most of them may be bibliographic ghosts.” He also reports, “Many other newspaper advertisements could just as legitimately form the basis for additional entries. But I have not included such entries since I have grave doubts about their validity.” He does not further explain his skepticism.
Winans includes an unnumbered entry for a “Catalogue of books in history, divinity, law, arts and sciences and the several parts of polite literature, to be sold by Garrat Noel, bookseller” advertised in the August 3, 1767, edition of the New-York Gazette, although no extant copy has been located. He does not include any entry for Semple’s catalog among those published the following year. Winans’s annotated bibliography of extant book catalogs documents an impressive array of marketing materials distributed in eighteenth-century America. Despite his skepticism about some that appeared in advertisements yet have not survived (which hardly comes as a surprise that such ephemeral items either no longer exist or have not yet been identified), these advertisements indicate that colonists had an expectation that booksellers and publishers did indeed print and distribute book catalogs as an alternate means of marketing their wares.
Robert B. Winans, A Descriptive Checklist of Book Catalogues Separately Printed in America, 1693-1800 (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1981), xvi.
Winans, Descriptive Checklist, 43