What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE TRIAL of the SOLDIERS of His Majesty’s Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Foot.”
“A FUNERAL SERMON … on the Death of the Rev. Mr. Whitefield.”
In a single advertisement in the February 27, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, Robert Wells marketed commemorative items associated with the two of the most important events that occurred in the colonies in 1770, the Boston Massacre on March 5 and the death of George Whitefield on September 30. Both events were covered widely in newspapers throughout the colonies, articles reprinted from one newspaper to another. Both also spurred commodification of the events within days or weeks. Advertisements for prints depicting the “late horrid Massacre in King-Street” appeared soon after soldiers fired into the crowd. Advertisements for funeral sermons, poems, and other items memorializing the prominent minister found their way into newspapers within days of his death.
Printers, booksellers, and others continued hawking commemorative items many months later. John Fleeming, a printer in Boston, announced publication of “THE TRIAL of the SOLDIERS of His Majesty’s Twenty-ninth Regiment of Foot” in January 1771, a few months after the trials concluded and coverage appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies. Several newspapers in New England carried advertisements for Fleeming’s volume by the end of January. A month later, advertisements also ran in newspapers as far away as South Carolina. On February 19, Wells inserted a brief notice that “A few Copies of The TRIAL at large of the SOLDIERS … for the Murders at Boston … may be had at the Great Stationary and Book Store.” In the next issue of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, he promoted the book at greater length. The new advertisement included the lengthy title as well as a list of the contents. Overall, it featured only slight variations from an advertisement Fleeming placed in the Boston Evening-Post on January 21. When the bookseller in Boston sent copies to his associate in Charleston, he may have included a copy of the advertisement. Alternately, Wells may have received the Boston Evening-Post directly from its printers as part of an exchange network that facilitated reprinting news and other items of interest.
Wells listed other items available at “the Great Stationary and Book-Shop,” concluding with a short paragraph about “A FUNERAL SERMON preached in Georgia on the Death of the Rev. Mr. WHITEFIELD wherein his Character is IMPARTIALLY drawn. By the Rev. Mr. ZUBLY.” Wells advertised Zubly’s sermon three weeks earlier in a lengthier notice. In contrast to most commemorative items in memory of Whitefield, that sermon was neither delivered nor printed in New England. Zubly preached it in Savannah, the same town where James Johnston printed it and then disseminated copies to both Wells and John Edwards, a merchant in Charleston. The production and marketing of commemorative items was not confined to New England.
Wells, like many other printers and booksellers, sought to generate revenues through the commodification of significant events that captured the public’s interest and attention. Most purveyors of these items promoted only one at a time. Their many advertisements testify to the extent of commodification of major events in the colonies in the 1770s. Wells’s advertisement for both an account of the trials of the soldiers who perpetrated the Boston Massacre and a funeral sermon memorializing one of the most prominent ministers of the era underscores the extent of the commodification of current events.