What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“With an APPENDIX, containing the Distiller’s Assistant.”
In the spring of 1770, the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury carried a series of advertisements from “I. FELL, at No. 14, in Pater-noster-Row, London.” Two of them appeared in the June 11 edition. The first, a subscription notice for the bible “On a PLAN never before attempted … By a SOCIETY of CLERGYMEN,” listed Fell as one of the booksellers. This subscription notice stated that “the Printer hereof,” Hugh Gaine, acted as a local agent. Interested parties needed to make arrangements with Gaine rather than contacting Fell. As local agent, Gaine compiled a list of subscribers that he sent to Fell, collected payments, and distributed the book after it went to press. The other advertisement listed eight titles that Fell sold at his shop. It did not indicate that Gaine served as a local agent, though customers may very well have had the option of submitting orders through him.
Fell’s second advertisement differed from most others placed by booksellers. They usually took one of two forms. Some, like the subscription notice, promoted a single title, describing both the contents and the material qualities of the publication. Others, like an advertisement placed by James Rivington in the same issue of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, listed books for sale but provided little elaboration beyond the titles. Rivington’s advertisement listed dozens of books; others listed hundreds. In contrast to either of those standard approaches, Fell’s advertisement featured eight books and provided a blurb about each to incite interest.
In general, Fell did not compose those blurbs. Instead, he incorporated the extensive subtitles that tended to be a feature of many books published in the eighteenth century. Thus “THE MEMOIRS OF Miss Arabella Bolton” became “THE MEMOIRS OF Miss Arabella Bolton, CONTAINING a genuine Account of her Seduction, and the barbarous Treatment she afterwards received from the Honourable Col. L—–L, the present supposed M—–r for the County of MIDDLESEX. With Various other Misfortunes and Embarrasments, into which this unhappy young Woman has been cruelly involved, through the Vicissitudes of Life, and the Villainy of her Seducer. The whole taken from the Original Letters of the said. Col. L—-L to Dr. KELLY, who attended her in the greatest Misfortunes and Distresses under which she labored: And also from sever Original Letters to Dr. KELLY and Miss BOLTON, and from other authenticated Papers in the Hands of the Publisher.” In addition, Fell listed the price.
Each book in Fell’s advertisement received the same treatment, though not all had subtitles as extensive as The Memoirs of Miss Arabella Bolton. If prospective customers were unfamiliar with a particular volume, they could consult the blurb to get a better sense of what it contained. The entry for The Country Brewer’s Assistant and English Vintner’s Instructor, for instance, rehearsed the table of contents and noted that it concluded with “an APPENDIX, containing the Distiller’s Assistant.” In contrast to that practical guide, The Complete Wizzard included “a Collection of authentic and entertaining Narratives of the real Existence and Appearance of Ghosts, Demons, and Spectres: Together with several wonderful Instances of the Effects of Witchcraft. To which is prefixed, An Account of Haunted Houses, and subjoined a Treatise on the Effects of Magic.” Several books in the advertisement included appendices or additional materials not evident in the main title alone. The Imperial Spelling Dictionary also included a “Compendious English Grammar.” Wilke’s Jests, or The Patriot Wit also gathered together a “pleasing Variety of Patriotic Toasts and Sentiments.” But wait, there’s more! The publisher also added “THE FREE-BORN MUSE; OR SELECT PIECES OF POETRY, by Mr. Wilkes, and other Gentlemen distinguished for their Wit and Patriotism.”
Fell likely intended that these blurbs would convince readers of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to purchase the books he sold. His advertisement revealed not only the contents of each volume but also the added value of supplemental materials not readily apparent in the main titles alone. Fell did not want readers to skim a list of titles quickly or pass over the advertisement entirely; instead, he sought to arouse greater interest by providing more elaborate overviews to capture their attention and convince them to purchase his books so they could read more.