What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Such pieces as may serve to illustrate their civil history will be gratefully received.”
A week after a brief subscription notice for the American Magazine, or General Repository ran in John Holt’s New-York Journal, a much more extensive variation appeared in Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. Both printers indicated that they accepted subscriptions on behalf of the magazine’s publisher, Lewis Nicola, and the printers, William Bradford and Thomas Bradford. Nicola and the Bradfords realized that the success of any magazine depended on cultivating interest throughout the colonies, not just in the Philadelphia market. To that end, they recruited printers in other towns to serve as subscription agents and promote the American Magazine in their newspapers.
The subscription notice in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette gave readers a better sense of the contents of the American Magazine than the abbreviated version in the New-York Journal. Nicola envisioned it as a complement to the publications of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. That institution concerned itself with the “natural history of the American and West-India colonies.” In contrast, Nicola wished to collect and preserve “such pieces as may serve to illustrate their civil history.” After the American Revolution, other magazine publishers advanced the same goal, seeking to record and celebrate the history of the thirteen colonies that became a nation as well as pieces that promoted American commerce. Nicola, like the magazine publishers that came after him, considered this an important undertaking that served purposed other than merely “gratifying the Curiosity of the Public.” Articles about the “civil history” of the colonies provided valuable information for “the present generation,” but over time they would also become useful to “such persons as may hereafter undertake general or particular histories of the colonies.” The American Magazine, or General Repository according to Nicola’s plan, was not ephemeral in the manner that magazines have become in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It was indeed a repository for consultation months, years, or even decades later. Although not explicitly stated in this advertisement, publishers intended for subscribers to collect all the issues to complete a single volume and then have them neatly bound to become a permanent part of the family library. Notice that Nicola stated that a subscription included “a general Title-Page” and index; such items became part of the bound volumes.
American booksellers imported many magazines from England in the eighteenth century, so many of them that Nicola described magazines as “the Taste of the Age.” Yet he promoted the American Magazine as timeless and a resource that retained its value over time because it included far more than entertaining curiosities. He suggested that subscribers should invest in the magazine for their own edification as well as the edification of subsequent generations.