What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A large Assortment of BOOKS.”
Although eighteenth-century booksellers sometimes issued book catalogs, either as broadsides or pamphlets, they much more often compiled catalogs for publication as newspaper advertisements. Booksellers who also happened to publish newspapers, like Robert Fowle, took advantage of their access to the press when they wished to promote their books, stationery, and other merchandise. Such printer-booksellers exercised the privilege of determining the contents of each issue, sometimes opting to reduce other content in favor of promoting their own wares. Alternately, inserting a book catalog, even an abbreviated list of titles, among the advertisements occasionally helped to fill the pages when printers lacked other content.
Fowle proclaimed that he stocked “A large Assortment of BOOKS” at his shop next door to the printing office in Portsmouth. To demonstrate that was indeed the case, his advertisement in the July 15, 1768, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette extended nearly an entire column and enumerated more than one-hundred titles. Such advertisements were part of a reading revolution that occurred in the eighteenth century as colonists transitioned from intensive reading of the Bible and devotional literature to extensive reading across many genres. Fowle’s list also included reference works as well as books meant for instruction. The printer-bookseller offered something for every interest or taste, including “small Books for Children.”
In some instances Fowle also promoted the material qualities of the books he sold. Some titles were “neatly bound & gilt,” making them especially attractive for display as well as reading. He offered “BIBLE of all sizes, some neatly bound and gilt.” Customers could choose whichever looked most appealing to them. If they did not care for the available bindings, they could purchase an unbound copy and have it bound to their specifications. Book catalogs and advertisements offered a variety of choices when it came to the physical aspects of reading materials, not just the contents.
Robert Fowle may have also published book catalogs in the 1760s, but his newspaper advertisements would have achieved far greater distribution. They alerted prospective customers to the “large Assortment” at his shop, introducing them to titles that they might not have previously considered but now wished to own (and perhaps even read) once they became aware of their availability.