What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Preparing catalogues … to be distributed gratis to their customers.”
In the spring of 1771, booksellers Noel and Hazard took to the pages of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to advertise the “general assortment of books, and stationary ware” available at their shop. They sought customers of all sorts, offering their inventory both “wholesale and retail.” The partners made recommendations for the proprietors of country stores, including “bibles, testaments, psalters, primers, childs new play thing, [and] young man’s companion.” They also had on hand a “great variety of Newbury’s pretty little gilt picture books for young masters and misses,” encouraging adults to purchase books for children. For prospective customers who pursued certain occupations, Noel and Hazard stocked “navigation books and instruments, surveying books and instruments, [and] architect books and instruments.” For all sorts of other readers, they sold English and French dictionaries, a “variety of the best pieces on husbandry, gardening and farriery,” and works by Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, and a variety of other authors familiar to eighteenth-century readers.
Noel and Hazard imported their merchandise from London and Scotland. They anticipated expanding their inventory upon the arrival of “the next vessels from London, Bristol, and Scotland.” At that time, the items available at their shop would become “so very numerous” that a newspaper advertisement would not longer suffice. As an alternative, Noel and Hazard were “preparing catalogues of the whole to be distributed gratis to their customers.” Booksellers regularly produced and disseminated catalogs to supplement their newspaper advertisements. Those catalogues took various forms, sometimes appearing as broadsides and other times as pamphlets. Over time, they became more sophisticated in terms of organization. Rather than listing available titles according to the size of the volumes, booksellers instead grouped them together according to genre. Doing so assisted prospective customers in locating titles of interest and discovering items they were most likely to purchase but might not have otherwise considered. Promising free catalogs also served as a ploy to get consumers into shops. Noel and Hazard described an extensive inventory in their advertisement, but readers who visited their shop to acquire a complete catalog had an opportunity to browse and examine the merchandise for themselves.
Few eighteenth-century book catalogs survive relative to how often booksellers mentioned them in newspaper advertisements. That has prompted some historians to suspect that many never actually made it into print. After all, Noel and Hazard stated that they “are preparing catalogues,” not that the catalogs were ready for distribution. The mere promise of a catalog may have also drawn prospective customers into shops. Still, booksellers promoted catalogs so frequently that it seems likely that they did distribute many of them, at least in sufficient numbers for prospective customers to have reasonable expectations of acquiring catalogs described in newspaper advertisements.