What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD … By PHILLIS.”
On October 11, 1770, coverage of George Whitefield’s death on September 30 continued to radiate out from Boston with news appearing in the New-York Journal, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Pennsylvania Journal. The commodification of Whitefield’s death intensified as well. Both newspapers printed in Boston on that day, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury and the Massachusetts Spy, carried advertisements for “AN Elegiac POEM, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the reverend and learned GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
Phillis Wheatley, now recognized as one of the most significant poets in eighteenth-century America, composed the poem, though in the advertisements she was known as “PHILLIS, A servant girl of seventeen years of age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston.” Referring to the young woman as a “servant girl” obscured the fact that she was enslaved by the Wheatley family. The advertisements further explained that she “has been but nine years in this country from Africa.” This event brought together Whitefield, the influential minister following his death, and Wheatley, the young poet near the beginning of her literary career. Although both are well known to historians and others today, much of Wheatley’s acclaim came after her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784. Arguably, Wheatley is more famous than Whitefield in twenty-first-century America, reversing their relative status compared to the eighteenth century.
In addition to the novelty of an African poet, Ezekiel Russell and John Boyles also promoted the image that adorned the broadside, proclaiming that it was “Embellished with a plate, representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port.” Examine the Library Company of Philadelphia’s copy of Wheatley’s “Elegiac Poem,” including an introduction that doubled as the copy for the advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy, the woodcut depicting Whitefield, and black borders that symbolized mourning in the eighteenth century.
Wheatley’s poem sold by Russell and Boyles was not the only one advertised on October 11. In a notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly Mercury, Richard Draper announced that he published “An Elegy to the Memory of that pious and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST The Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.” Exercising he prerogative as printer of that newspaper, Draper placed his advertisement before the one for the broadside with Wheatley’s poem and the woodcut of Whitefield.
Both poems celebrated Whitefield’s life and ministry. Both gave colonial consumers an opportunity to mourn for Whitefield and feel better connected to his ministry, even if they had never had the chance to hear him preach. Especially for those who had not witnessed Whitefield deliver a sermon, purchasing one of these broadsides allowed them to have an experience closely associated with Whitefield’s life by commemorating his death. The printers who produced, marketed, and sold these broadsides simultaneously honored Whitefield’s memory and commodified his death, merging mourning and making money.