December 7

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (December 7, 1770).

“The late Rev. and pious Mr. Whitefield favoured the World a few years ago with his opinion of this work.”

In December 1770, John Fleeming distributed subscription notices for a publication that he described as “The First BIBLE ever printed in America.”  The proposed work included “the OLD and NEW TESTAMENTS” as well as “Annotations and Parallel Scriptures By the late Rev. SAMUEL CLARK.”  Fleeming outlined the conditions, a standard part of any subscription notice, providing an overview of the type, paper, and publication schedule.  He also offered premiums to “Booksellers, Country Traders,” and others who collected at least one dozen subscriptions on his behalf and later distributed the bibles to the subscribers.  In addition, Fleeming informed prospective subscribers that their names “will be printed” among the ancillary materials that accompanied the bible, thus testifying to their commitment to the project and their role in making it possible.

Yet Fleeming devoted the greatest portion of his subscription notice to an innovative marketing strategy.  He included a lengthy testimonial from George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  Fleeming noted that the “pious Mr. Whitefield favoured the World a few years ago with his opinion of this work, and a character of the Author,” Samuel Clark, “in a preface which he prefixed to an edition then publishing.”  Fleeming then quoted extensively from Whitefield, filling almost an entire column.  Indeed, the entire subscription notice filled two of three columns on the first page of the December 7 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.

This was yet another instance of printers and booksellers seeking to capitalize on Whitefield’s death a few months earlier on September 30.  Since that time, newspaper printers published a steady stream of articles about the minister’s death and reactions throughout the colonies.  Even as those news items slowed down, they continued to print and reprint poems that eulogized Whitefield.  Almost as soon as the public received news of the minister’s death, printers and booksellers began hawking books and hymnals written by Whitefield as well as commemorative items that memorialized the minister.  Along with publishing poems in his memory, the commodification of Whitefield’s death continued after news reached even the most distant colonies.  Mobilizing the deceased minister’s preface from another edition in order to deliver a posthumous testimonial in a subscription notice that began circulating two months after his death was another means of combining outlets for expressing grief and opportunities to generate revenues.

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