What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Hymn composed by the Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD, and intended to be sung over his Corps.”
George Whitefield, one of the most influential ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals known as the Great Awakening, was a celebrity known throughout the American colonies. Following his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, newspaper coverage radiated out from Boston. The first reports appeared in the Boston Evening-Post, the Boston-Gazette, and the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy the following day. The Massachusetts Spy, published in Boston, and the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, printed the news on October 2. Two days later, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter reported Whitefield’s death and the Massachusetts Spy became the first newspaper to disseminate information about the event in more than one issue. Coverage continued in other newspapers, many of them reprinting articles that first appeared in Boston’s newspapers. On October 5, the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, the New-Hampshire Gazette, and the New-London Gazette all carried the news, as did the Providence Gazette on October 6. All three Boston newspapers that broke the story on October 1 expanded their coverage on October 8. The same day, the Newport Mercury reprinted news that ran in the Boston-Gazette a week earlier. The news also appeared in newspaper published outside New England for the first time. The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury and the New-York Gazette or Weekly Post-Boy reprinted items from Boston’s newspapers.
On October 9, the Connecticut Courant, published in Hartford, carried news for the first time, while the Essex Gazetteand the Massachusetts Spy continued coverage. In addition to news items about Whitefield’s death, the Essex Gazette ran an advertisement for “A Hymn composed by the Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD, and intended to be sung over his Corps, if he had died in England, by a Number or Orphans.” That hymn was collected together with “some Verses on the Death of that great Man,” perhaps gathered from the various newspapers that honored Whitefield with poetry in addition to news articles. The advertisement informed readers that the hymn and verses “will be printed on a Half Sheet, and sold at the Printing-Office To-Morrow.” Samuel Hall, the printer of the Essex Gazette, participated in the commodification of Whitefield’s death. He simultaneously sought to honor the revered minister and profit from his demise.
Even though Hall was the first to publish an advertisement, he was not the first to introduce the commodification of Whitefield’s death to the public. Coverage in the October 4, 1770, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter included a short note about a similar (or perhaps the same) broadside: “A FUNERAL HYMN, wrote by the Rev’d Mr. Whitefield: Said to be designed to have been sung over his Corpse by the Orphans belonging to his Tabernacle in London, had he died there. Sold at Green & Russell’s.” This announcement appeared as part of an original news item about Whitefield’s death dated October 4, following a reprinted news item about his death dated October 1, and immediately before verses honoring the minister. It was not separated from the coverage of Whitefield’s death as a distinct item, nor did it appear among the advertisements that ran elsewhere in that issue. It was fully integrated into the reporting about Whitefield. Just four days after the minister’s death, printers were already hawking memorabilia. Not long after that, notices about commemorative items began appearing as advertisements rather than as part of the news coverage, underscoring the possibilities for generating revenue inherent in the commodification of Whitefield’s death. Hall may have sold a broadside he printed or the one printed by Green and Russell, but either way he aimed to profit by leveraging the Whitefield’s celebrity and death. Hall and other printers used current events to promote sales of commemorative items.