What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“AN ELEGY on the Reverend GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
Following the death of George Whitefield, one of the most influential ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, news radiated out from New England. Brief reports first appeared in Boston’s newspapers the day after the minister died. Other newspapers then reprinted the news, first in other colonies in New England and then in New York and Pennsylvania and eventually in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. (The Georgia Gazette presumably carried the news as well, but few copies from 1770 survive.) Coverage of Whitefield’s death also included poems written in his memory, reprinted from newspaper to newspaper, and advertisements for commemorative items, all of them printed materials that ranged from broadsides to pamphlets to books.
The widespread marketing of that memorabilia amounted to the commodification of Whitefield’s death as printers and others sought to capitalize on the event. That does not mean that expressions of mourning among producers and consumers were not sincere. They were, however, mediated through acquiring goods that allowed consumers to experience a connection to the minister and feel as though they were participating in current events alongside others who mourned. Even as producers and sellers of the commemorative items facilitated that process, they also strove to generate revenues from Whitefield’s death.
The commodification began in New England almost as soon as newspapers published the news. In its first article about Whitefield’s death, published four days later, the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter noted that a “FUNERAL HYMN” that the minister wrote several years earlier was for sale at another printing office in Boston. Not long after that, freestanding advertisements began appearing in all of the newspapers published in that city as well as in newspapers from other towns in New England. As news spread to other colonies, printers and booksellers in New York and Pennsylvania also ran advertisements that marketed Whitefield memorabilia. Due to the distance, it took more than three weeks for the news to reach South Carolina. Just two weeks after that, an advertisement for a commemorative item ran in the November 6, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette.
That advertisement offered a short history of Whitefield’s death. Coverage had not been as extensive that far from New England, so the advertisement likely helped prospective customers recall the key details that Whitefield “departed this Life ay Newbury-Port in New-England, on the Morning of the Lord’s-Day, September 30th 1770, in the 56th Year of his Age.” The advertisement promoted an “ELEGY” in memory of the minister as well as “A HYMN, composed by the Rev, Mr. WHITEFIELD to be sung over his own Corpse.” By then the hymn had already been widely marketed in New England and additional advertisements ran in other colonies. The advertisement in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette indicated a different method of distributing the memorabilia than in most advertisements in other newspapers, stating that “CARRIERS of this GAZETTE” sold the elegy and hymn. A couple of advertisements published in New England offered discounts for shopkeepers and peddlers who bought large numbers for resale, but this was the first advertisement that specified that those who delivered newspapers also sold Whitefield commemorative items. Opportunities to purchase memorabilia in South Carolina apparently were not confined to the urban port of Charleston but instead available in places removed from the busy city.
Mourning, celebrating the life of a prominent minister, and business were intertwined as colonists reacted to the death of George Whitefield. His celebrity helped to make possible the commodification of his death and the appearance of newspaper advertisements hawking broadsides, pamphlets, and books. Although concentrated in New England, that commodification also occurred as far away as South Carolina. Colonists experienced print culture that informed them of the minister’s death, but they also participated in consumer culture that helped them to make meaning of it while simultaneously generating revenues for the producers and sellers of Whitefield commemorative items.