What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.”
A subscription notice for publishing “THE WORKS OF THE CELEBRATED JOHN WILKES, Esq” appeared among the advertisements in the December 15, 1768, edition of the New-York Journal. Wilkes, a radical English politician and journalist considered a friend to American liberties, was widely recognized in the colonies, so much so that the publishers of the New-England Town and Country Almanack inserted his portrait as the frontispiece and emphasized its inclusion as part of their marketing efforts. News concerning Wilkes regularly appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies. As the imperial crisis unfolded, Wilkes became a hero to Americans who opposed Parliament’s attempts to tax and otherwise interfere in colonial affairs. Printers and booksellers sensed that a market for his collected works might exist, but it required proper cultivation.
Such was the purpose of the subscription notice. It deployed several strategies intended to incite demand. Among them, it constructed what Benedict Anderson has described as an “imagined community” of readers, a community drawn together through their engagement with the same printed materials despite members being geographically dispersed. The advertisement noted that “Subscriptions are taken by all the Booksellers at New-York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charles-Town, South-Carolina.” Readers of the New-York Journal who encountered this advertisement and purchased Wilkes’s works would participate in an endeavor that was more than merely local. They would join with others in faraway places, people they likely would never meet but who were exposed simultaneously to the same ideas and ideals through common acts of purchasing and reading Wilkes’s works. The notice indicated that there were “but a few Sets left unsubscribed for,” suggesting that the community was already vast and those who had not yet reserved their copies risked their own exclusion. To further evoke a common sense of identity, the subscription notice pledged that “The Paper for this Edition was manufactured, and all the Printing performed in this Country.” This was an American edition, produced by colonists for colonists from New England to the Lower South.
In marketing this three-volume set of Wilkes’s works, the publisher resorted to more than invoking the politics of the imperial crisis. This subscription notice sought to foster a sense of belonging among prospective subscribers, suggesting that they formed a community that transcended residence in one colony or another. That common identity gave colonists a shared political purpose, but it also facilitated selling books.