What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Grand Feast of Historical Entertainment … XENOPHONTICK BANQUET.”
Robert Bell advertised widely when he published an American edition of William Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles the Fifth in 1771. Though he printed the three-volume set in Philadelphia, he placed advertisements in newspapers from New England to South Carolina. In seeking subscribers in advance of publication and buyers after the books went to press, Bell did not rely on the usual means of marketing books to consumers. Instead, he adopted a more flamboyant style, an approach that became a trademark of his efforts to promote the American book trade in the late eighteenth century.
For instance, Bell announced “the Completion of the grand Feast of Historical Entertainment” with the imminent “Publication of the third Volume of Robertson’s celebrated History of Charles the Fifth” in an advertisement in the April 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. He invited “all Gentlemen that possess a sentimental Taste” to participate in “this elegant XENOPONTICK BANQUET” by adding their names to the subscription list. In continuing the metaphor of the feast, Bell invoked Xenophon of Athens, an historian and philosopher considered one of the greatest writers of the ancient world. The phrase “XENOPHONTICK BANQUET” appeared in all capitals and a slightly larger font, as did “HISTORY,” the headline intended to draw attention to the advertisement.
The previous day, a very similar advertisement ran in the Essex Gazette. It featured “HISTORY” and “XENOPHONTIC BANQUET” in capital letters and larger font. Most of the text was identical as well, though local printers adjusted the instructions for acquiring copies of the book. The version in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette directed subscribers to “any of the Booksellers in Boston, New-York, Philadelphia, or to ROBERT WELLS,” bookseller and printer of the newspaper, “in Charlestown.” The variant in the Essex Gazette also mentioned “Booksellers in Boston, New-York, [and] Philadelphia,” but also listed local agents in seven other towns, including Samuel Orne in Salem. Wells also inserted a note that he sold writing paper and trunks in addition to the first and second volumes of Robertson’s History.
Published just a day apart in Charleston, South Carolina, and Salem, Massachusetts, these advertisements with such similar copy and format created a near simultaneous reading experience in towns located hundreds of miles distant. Reprinting news accounts from one newspaper to another to another had a similar effect, though it took time to disseminate news in that manner. Bell engineered an advertising campaign without the same time lapse as coverage of the “freshest Advices” among the news accounts. Among the imagined community of readers and consumers in South Carolina and Massachusetts, the simultaneity of being encouraged to purchase an American edition of Robertson’s famed work was much less imagined than the simultaneity of keeping up with current events by reading the news.