What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“All the Books in this Catalogue are either American Manufacture, or imported long before the Non-Importation Agreement.”
Robert Bell, one of the most industrious booksellers in eighteenth-century America, owed his success in part to savvy advertising. His advertisement for an “Auction of Books” in the February 5, 1770, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, for instance, incorporated two significant marketing strategies intended to incite consumer demand.
Bell began by announcing that he had just published a “CATALOGUE of new and old BOOKS” that prospective customers could acquire “gratis at the Place of Sale.” Bell likely intended that distributing the catalog would get people through the door. When they came to pick up a catalog many might decide to view the merchandise. Then they carried away a catalog as a reminder of the books they had examined. In passing out catalogs, Bell also enhanced the dissemination of information about his merchandise beyond the reach of his newspaper advertisement. Prospective customers who obtained catalogues could share them with members of their household as well as friends and neighbors. Bell did not rely on a single medium to attract attention to his “Auction of Books.” Instead, he had multiple marketing media in circulation.
He also addressed the politics of consumption, concluding his advertisement with a note about the origins of the books he offered for sale. “[A]ll the Books in this Catalogue,” he assured prospective customers, “are either American Manufacture, or imported long before the Non-Importation Agreement.” Although colonial printers produced some American imprints, the most books in the colonies were imported from England prior to the American Revolution. Bell sought to mediate that reality by focusing on the fact that his books had been imported before merchants, shopkeepers, and others enacted a boycott of imported goods to protest the duties levied on certain imported goods in the Townshend Acts. Rather than focus on where those volumes had been produced he instead emphasized when they had arrived in the colonies. Still, he did make an appeal to the place of production when he could, noting that some of his books were indeed “American Manufacture.” To underscore the importance of these distinctions, he addressed prospective customers as “Lovers and real Practisers of Patriotism,” challenging all readers to consider the political meanings of consumer goods.
Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements have sometimes been dismissed as mere announcements that made no effort at marketing. Bell’s notice, however, demonstrates that some advertisers engaged in savvy marketing campaigns … and that consumers were exposed to their efforts to shape the colonial marketplace.