What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“An Exhibition of modern Books, by AUCTION.”
Robert Bell, one of the most influential booksellers and auctioneers in eighteenth-century America, toured New England in the summer of 1770. Bell is widely recognized among historians of the book for his innovative marketing practices. The tone and language in his advertisement in the July 7, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, however, seems rather bland compared to the flashy approach that eventually became the hallmark of Bell’s efforts to promote his books and auctions. On the other hand, another advertisement in the Essex Gazette just a few weeks later hinted at the showmanship that Bell was in the process of developing and refining.
In announcing auctions that would take place at a tavern in Salem on three consecutive nights, Bell addressed prospective bidders as “the Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.” Deploying such salutations eventually became a trademark of his newspaper advertisements, broadsides, and book catalogs. The advertisement in the Essex Gazette gave customers a glimpse of the personality they would encounter at the auction. Bell described each auction as “an Exhibition of modern Books” and proclaimed that one each evening “there will really exist an Opportunity of purchasing Books cheap.” He seemed to take readers into his confidence, offering assurances that the prospect of inexpensive books was more than just bluster to lure them to the auction.
In the same advertisement, Bell sought to incite interest in another trilogy of auctions. “An Opportunity similar to the above,” he declared, “will revolve at the Town of NEWBURY-PORT.” Readers of the Essex Gazette who could not attend any of the book auctions in Salem had another chance to get good bargains while mingling with other “Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.” Like other itinerants who announced their visits in the public prints, whether peddlers or performers, Bell made clear that he would be in town for a limited time only. He advised that “the Public may be certain that the Auctionier’s Stay in those Towns will not exceed the Time limited as above.” Bell would be in Salem for just three nights and then in Newburyport for three more nights before moving along to his next destination.
Compared to his recent notice in the Providence Gazette, the advertisement Bell placed in the Essex Gazette much more resembled the style of promotion that made him famous in the eighteenth century and infamous in the history of the book. His lively language suggested that his auctions would be more than the usual sort of sale. They would be events that readers would not want to miss.