What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“JUST PUBLISHED … Dr. Whitaker’s SERMON On the DEATH of the Reverend George Whitefield.”
George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770. The next day, articles appeared in newspapers published in Boston and the news radiated to other towns throughout the colonies over several weeks. In addition to news items, many newspapers printed and reprinted poems that eulogized the minister. Almost immediately, some printers and booksellers advertised commemorative items that commodified Whitefield’s death. Through concentrated primarily in New England, such advertisements also ran in newspapers in New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
As winter approached, printers and booksellers continued to produce and market new items related to Whitefield and his death. On November 27, Samuel Hall, printer of the Essex Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts, advertised that “On Thursday or Friday next will be published … The Rev. Dr. Whitaker’s SERMON, on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD.” In the next issue, Hall inserted an updated advertisement that announced he had indeed “JUST PUBLISHED” the sermon and offered it for sale at the printing office. This advertisement, unlike most others, included thick black bands at the top and bottom, a widely recognized symbol of mourning in eighteenth-century America. Usually, black bands or borders were reserved for news articles or they adorned an entire page or issue. By incorporating them into this advertisement, Hall elevated Whitaker’s sermon on Whitefield’s death and, by extension, his marketing of that item, to news. In addition, he placed the advertisement at the top of the first column devoted to advertisements in the December 4 edition of the Essex Gazette, making it a transition between news and advertising.
In the year that saw the Boston Massacre and the repeal of most of the Townshend duties on imported goods, the death of George Whitefield was one of the most significant stories that circulated in the colonial American newspapers. Yet coverage of the minister’s death was not confined to news alone. Printers and booksellers seized opportunities to produce commemorative items and offer them for sale, simultaneously consoling the general public and seeking to profit from their grief.