January 23

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 23, 1772).

Most of these Papers will, probably, be irrecoverably lost in a few Years, unless preserved by Printing.”

On behalf of posterity, printers and consumers in Massachusetts worked to preserve documents that told the story of the colony.  In 1769, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, the printers of the Boston Evening-Post, distributed subscription notices for “A COLLECTION of Original PAPERS, which are intended to support and elucidate the principal Facts related in the first Part of the HISTORY of MASSACHUSETTS BAY.”  The printers promoted that volume as an appendix to the first volume of Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay, published in 1764.

In 1772, the Fleets promoted a similar project, though an advertisement in the January 23 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter declared that a “Gentleman in England, of distinguished character for many munificent deeds to the Publick,” envisioned “printing a second Volume of Collection of Papers relative to the History of Massachusetts-Bay.”  An ideal companion for the earlier work, the new book would be “about the same size … at the same price” as the earlier one.  Acquiring copies of this proposed volume required subscribing.  It would not go to press until “Subscribers sufficient to defrey the Expence shall appear.”  In addition, “None will be printed for Sale,” only those reserved in advance.  Subscribers could submit their names to local agents, most of them printers, in eleven cities and towns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The “Gentleman in England” who supposedly initiated this project with an initial of subscription of “Ten Guineas” (or ten pounds and ten shillings) claimed to be motivated by “the Preservation of these Papers for the Benefit of Posterity.”  Printing the papers served as one means of preserving them, creating so many copies that the contents would survive even if the original documents did not.  A note near the end of the advertisement warned that “most of these Papers will, probably, be irrecoverably lost in a few Years, unless preserved by Printing.”  That meant that prospective subscribers had an obligation to invest in this enterprise “from a regard to the Public as well as for the sake of their particular Entertainment.”  Consumers had an opportunity to participate in historic preservation, not through tending to original sources but instead by purchasing so many copies of the volumes that anthologized those sources to make them always accessible to subsequent generations.

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