What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“This Sermon contains a summary Account of Mr. WHITEFIELD’S Life.”
When George Whitefield, one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, news quickly spread. Accounts of his death first appeared in newspapers published in Boston, radiating out to newspapers in other cities and towns. Almost immediately, printers, booksellers, and others began marketing commemorative items in memory of Whitefield. Commodification of the minister’s death became part of the mourning ritual.
From New Hampshire to South Carolina, newspapers carried advertisements for books, broadsides, and poems. Readers encountered those advertisements for nearly three months before they tapered off. After another three months, advertisements for new Whitefield memorabilia began appearing in colonial newspapers, this time for items related to reactions to the minister’s death on the other side of the Atlantic. On March 21, 1771, the New-York Journal carried an advertisement for “THE celebrated Sermon preached … on the Death of the late Rev. Mr. George Whitefield … By JOHN WESLEY.” John Holt, printer of the New-York Journal, took to press the first American edition of Wesley’s funeral sermon.
Nearly a month later, John Fleeming advertised and published another edition in Boston. He ran an advertisement in the April 19 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter. Unlike Holt, Fleeming noted that his edition included “a summary Account of Mr. WHITEFIELD’S Life extracted from his own Journals,” an elaboration on the content intended to entice consumers. This endeavor merited its own advertisement separate from another notice that Fleeming ran to promote stationery and books, including an account of the trials of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, that the printer sold at his shop on King Street.
Most public figures disappeared from colonial newspapers not long after accounts of their deaths. Printers continued coverage of Whitefield, on the other hand, for many months, publishing both news accounts and advertisements for memorabilia. Commemoration and commodification occurred simultaneously as Whitefield continued to appear in the colonial press more than half a year after his death.