What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The Publisher will give two Copies gratis to such as shall collect One Dozen of Subscribers.”
When John Fleeming of Boston set about publishing what he billed as “The first Bible ever printed in America” he advertised widely in the colonial press. He launched his marketing efforts in newspapers published in Boston and other towns in New England, but over time his subscription notices also ran in newspapers in far distant cities. One version appeared in the March 26, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. Though lengthy, it was not as extensive as some variants of the advertisement. It did not include a testimonial from George Whitefield concerning an earlier English edition that incorporated “Annotations and Parallel Scriptures, By the late Rev. SAMUEL CLARKE.” Fleeming intended to include the same supplementary material in his American edition.
In order to make this enterprise viable, Fleeming sought subscribers who reserved copies in advance. To that end, he cultivated networks of local agents. The publisher started with newspaper printers who ran his advertisement, but he also encouraged others to join his efforts. He offered premiums to those who accepted his invitation. “In order to encourage Booksellers, Country Traders, &c. to promote Subscriptions for this grand and useful Work,” Fleeming declared, “the Publisher will give two Copies gratis to such as shall collect One Dozen of Subscribers.” Fleeming also expected these local agents to distribute copies to their subscribers and collect payment.
In addition to placing newspaper advertisements that laid out the terms of subscribing, he also printed separately subscription papers for local agents. Those “Proposal” likely included the same conditions as appeared in newspaper advertisements and Whitefield’s endorsement as well as space for subscribers to add their names. In turn, subscribers and prospective subscribers could examine the list to see the company they kept or could keep by supporting the project. Some local agents may have posted subscription papers in their shops, putting them on display before the community. The proposals also specified that “Subscribers Names will be printed.” Fleeming asked booksellers, country traders, and others interested in becoming local agents to contact him for copies of the proposals. In the version of the advertisement that ran in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, he named Robert Wells, printer of that newspaper, in Charleston and James Johnston, printer of the Georgia Gazette, in Savannah as local agents who collected subscriptions.
Fleeming promoted this annotated “FAMILY BIBLE” as a “laudable Undertaking.” It was certainly an undertaking that required coordination with others before going to press. The publisher advertised widely and established networks of local agents. To increase the number of subscribers, he offered premiums to local agents who met the threshold of getting commitments from at least a dozen subscribers. Fleeming did not envision this endeavor as a Boston edition for residents of Boston but instead as an American edition for readers and consumers throughout the colonies.