What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of … GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
The Boston Massacre and the death of George Whitefield both occurred in 1770, separated by almost six months. News of both events quickly spread via the colonial press with coverage commencing in Boston’s newspapers and then radiating out to other newspapers in other towns in New England and beyond. In both instances, simultaneous acts of commemoration and commodification quickly followed. Paul Revere and Henry Pelham marketed prints depicting the “Bloody Massacre” just weeks after British soldiers fired on a crowd in Boston, killing several people. The commodification of Whitefield’s death happened more quickly and more extensively. The Boston Massacre may be better remembered today as a result of the war for independence that it helped to inspire, but in 1770 it was the death of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening that captured far more attention when it came to creating and selling commemorative items.
Within a couple of weeks of Whitefield’s death on September 30, all five newspapers published in Boston printed advertisements for at least one commemorative item that colonists could purchase. This commodification also found its way into the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, and the New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth. Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle, the printers of the New-Hampshire Gazette, provided extensive coverage of Whitefield’s death and public reaction to it, devoting a significant amount of space to it. Between news articles, verses in memory of the minister, and advertisements for commemorative items, contents about Whitefield accounted for more than ten percent of the column inches in the October 19 edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette, as they had in each issue since the minister’s death. The Fowles ran a new article that proclaimed Whitefield’s “PATRIOTISM.” For a second time, they inserted an advertisement for two broadsides for sale at the printing office. They devoted an entire column, complete with mourning bands at top and bottom, to two poems reprinted from other newspapers and a new advertisement for yet another broadside.
That advertisement promoted the “Elegiac Poem … By Phillis, a Servant Girl.” That “Servant Girl” was Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet who became one of the most influential poets in eighteenth-century American literature. This broadside had already been advertised widely in Boston’s newspapers and the Essex Gazette. In selling it in New Hampshire, the Fowles enlarged the community of commemoration that consumed the same items. Just as they read the same news items and verses reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, colonists purchased, read, and displayed the same memorabilia from town to town, creating a more unified experience despite the distance that separated them. The Fowles suggested that Wheatley’s poem “ought to be preserved” – not just purchased – “for two good Reasons.” The first was “in Remembrance of that great and good man, Mr. Whitefield.” In addition, customers should acquire a copy “on Account of its being w[ro]te by a Native of Africa, and yet would have done Honor to a Pope or Shakespere.” The Fowles traded on the novelty of an enslaved poet who “had been but nine Years in this Country from Africa,” hoping that would incite greater demand for this commemorative item.
The Adverts 250 Project has featured advertisements related to the commodification of Whitefield’s death several times in recent weeks. While many other kinds of advertisements appeared in the colonial press, this repetition is meant to demonstrate how widely printers and others marketed Whitefield memorabilia following his death. The minister’s passing was a major news story, but one that also lent itself to widespread commemoration through commodification as printers sought to give consumers opportunities to express their grief and feel connected to the departed minister.