March 10

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 10 - 3:10:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (March 10, 1770).

“WEST’s … ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS.”

John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted a familiar advertisement in the March 10, 1770, edition.  It announced “WEST’s ALMANACKS, For the present Year, Likewise, his ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS, To be sold by the Printer hereof.”  Carter also happened to be the printer of both of those volumes penned by West, an astronomer, mathematician, and professor at Rhode Island College (now Brown University).  Given the practices of colonial printers, it might be tempting to assume that Carter inserted the short advertisement in order to complete the final column on the last page of that issue when lacking other content … or that he once again attempted to rid himself of surplus copies of an almanac that became more obsolete with each passing day.  Careful examination of the news items in that issue of the Providence Gazette, however, suggest that Carter may have had another motive.

The second page featured an item reprinted “From the MASSACHUSETTS GAZETTE” that filled an entire column and then some.  It detailed “THE COMET, which we saw in the beginning of September,” declaring that it disappeared from visibility “for near six weeks in the neighbourhood of the Sun” and then “shewed itself again towards the end of October on the other side of the Sun.”  Unsigned, this account was probably written by John Winthrop (1714-1779), described by Frederick E. Brasch as “America’s First Astronomer.”  According to Brasch, “In 1769 Winthrop published an account in the Boston journals of the observations of the brilliant comet which appeared on September 1st.  The remarkable feature of this comet was the length of its tail.”[1]  Colonial printers frequently copied news items and editorials from one newspaper to another as they traded their publications through exchange networks.

Carter may have glimpsed an opportunity to tie a book about astronomy he had recently published an account of a comet that he republished, hoping that the latter incited demand for the former.  He could have intended for Winthrop’s extensive description of the comet to whet the appetites of readers interested in astronomy.  He offered them more, reminding them that he sold West’s “ACCOUNT of the TRANSIT of VENUS.”  The printer engaged in a sort of product placement.  Though certainly not as sophisticated as modern practices, it was an innovation in eighteenth-century America.

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[1] Frederick E. Brasch, “John Winthrop (1714-1779), America’s First Astronomer, and the Science of His Period, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 28, no. 165 (August-October 1916):  169.

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