What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Robert Bell, BOOKSELLER and AUCTIONIER.”
Historians of the book have long credited Robert Bell as one of the most innovative, industrious, and successful booksellers in eighteenth-century America. His auctions achieved great success, due in part to the larger-than-life personality he cultivated and in part to the marketing strategies he developed. Carl Bridenbaugh asserts that Bell “institutionalized the colonial book auction, and more than any one else in [the era of the American Revolution] laid the solid foundations for book publishing in America.”
At the time that he ran his advertisement for “An OLD LOOKING-GLASS For the LAITY and CLERGY Of all Denominations” in the Providence Gazette in the summer of 1770, he had only recently arrived in the colonies. James N. Green explains that Bell, “a Scot who reached Philadelphia in 1768 after a career as a reprinter of English properties in Ireland, was the first American bookseller to reprint systematically new and popular British books in direct competition with imports.” This distinguished him from other booksellers who sold primarily imported books rather than taking on the risk and expense of publishing and selling American editions. In 1770, Bell circulated a subscription proposal for Blackstone’s Commentaries. Upon acquiring sufficient subscribers, he published an American edition in 1771 and 1772. Green echoes Bridenbaugh, describing Bell as an “innovative and dynamic” promoter of printed wares who provided “a model of what the book culture of an independent country might be like, and he foreshadowed the transformation of the book trade in the postwar years.”
Yet Bell sometimes resorted to traditional means of advertising books, especially near the beginning of his career in America. Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette was muted compared to others. Some of his subsequent newspaper advertisements addressed readers and prospective customers as “Sons of Science,” “Sentimentalists of America,” and “The Lovers of literary entertainment, amusement and instruction.” By 1780, Bell devised advertisements that hawked his own personality in addition to describing the community of readers, including in a broadsheet in which he described himself as “Bookseller, Provedore to the Sentimentalists, and Professor of BOOK-AUCTIONEERING in America.” According to Green, “Before Bell, book advertisements consisted of nothing more than a transcription of their titles; no one had ever used language to sell books in this way.” The length of Bell’s advertisement in the Providence Gazette, however, set it apart from others in the same issue, but the language did not distinguish it from other advertisements for books from the period. The personality associated with his bookselling and auctioneering enterprise was still a work in progress.
 Carl Bridenbaugh, “The Press and the Book in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65, no. 1 (January 1941): 16.
 James N. Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing,” in Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, eds., An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840, vol. 2, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 77.
 Green, “Rise of Book Publishing,” 77.
 Bridenbaugh, “Press and the Book,” 15.
 James N. Green, “English Books and Printing in the Age of Franklin,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, vol. 1, A History of the Book in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press with the American Antiquarian Society, 2007), 285.