January 31

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

Pennsylvania Journal (January 31, 1771).

“A DISCOURSE, Occasioned by the DEATH of the Revd. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”

The death of George Whitefield in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, was one of the most significant news events of the year.  Newspapers throughout the colonies reported on the death of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening.  They also carried news of local reactions and commemorations as well as poetry that memorialized the minister.  Almost immediately, printers, publishers, booksellers, and others commodified Whitefield’s death, marketing a variety of memorabilia via newspaper advertisements.

Such marketing tapered off after a couple of months as the immediacy of Whitefield’s death faded.  Printers and booksellers who previously placed advertisements designed solely to promote items devoted to Whitefield began listing such memorabilia among other merchandise available for sale.  At the end of January and beginning of February 1771, however, a resurgence of marketing commemorative items occurred, this time in places that had not witnessed the same intensity of advertising for Whitefield memorabilia as New England and New York in the final months of 1770.

William Bradford and Thomas Bradford, printers of the Pennsylvania Journal, began advertising sermons delivered in memory of the minister in the January 31 edition of their newspapers.  The Bradfords informed the public that they published “A DISCOURSE, Occasioned by the DEATH of the Revd. GEORGE WHITEFIELD … delivered October 14, 1770, in the Second Presbyterian Church, in this city, By JAMES SPROUTT, A.M. Pastor of said Church.”  They also carried another sermon by Ebenezer Pemberton, “Pastor of a Church in BOSTON.”  The Bradfords likely acquired copies of Pemberton’s sermon from printers in New England or New York, perhaps in exchange for promises of receiving copies of Sproutt’s sermon when it went to press.  The latter was a new publication not previously marketed elsewhere.  The Bradfords offered their customers choices; they could acquire a sermon delivered locally that already may have been familiar or one delivered in Boston that featured new content.  They could even purchase both, allowing them simultaneously to honor the influential minister and compare the memorials.

Whitefield’s death prompted mourning throughout the colonies, but it also presented opportunities for printers, publishers, booksellers, and others to attempt to profit from leveraging current events into commemorative items.  From New England to South Carolina, newspapers carried both reports of the minister’s death and advertisements for memorabilia. Widespread commodification accompanied the death of the famous minister.

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