What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF BOOKS … AN ASSORTMENT of CURIOUS HARD-WARE.”
John Sparhawk sold a variety of goods at the “LONDON BOOK-STORE” on Second Street in Philadelphia in the early 1770s. He ran an advertisement in the February 24, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet to announce that he had in stock “A GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF BOOKS,” listing a dozen titles. Like many other booksellers, he also carried “papers and stationary of all kinds” as well as patent medicines popular among consumers.
A good portion of the inventory he promoted in his advertisement, however, deviated from the sorts of ancillary merchandise that most booksellers sold. Sparhawk devoted more space in his advertisement to “AN ASSORTMENT of CURIOUS HARD-WARE” than to “Blackstone’s commentaries,” “Kalm’s history of America,” and other books. He had everything from “A variety of spectacle” to “An assortment of very neat pocket and horse pistols, brass and iron barrels, bolted, plain and silver mounted” to “Pinchbeck buckles of the best kinds” to “Knives and forks, from the best to the common kinds in wood boxes or shagreen cases.” Shoppers encountered the same sorts of merchandise at the “LONDON BOOK-STORE” that they found at general purpose stores around town.
Even though his list of tea urns, gloves, scales, and other wares occupied more space than his catalog of books, Sparhawk did draw attention to two books in particular. In a nota bene, he advised prospective customers about bargains for purchasing American editions of two medical texts. They got a great deal on “TISSOT’S Advice to the People with regards to their Health, an American edition, at 10s. the London edition is 15s.” Similarly, they could acquire “Dimsdale’s present method of Innoculation for the Small-pox, at 3s. 9d.” for an American edition, but “the London edition is 6s.” Sparhawk also noted that he “has a few sets of the 12th, 13th and 14th volumes of Van Swieten’s Commentaries, to match the eleven preceding,” for those who wanted to complete their sets.
Booksellers often diversified their inventory with stationery, writing supplies, and “DRUGS AND MEDICINES” to generate additional revenues. Most, however, did not advertise extensive selections of other kinds of merchandise. Sparhawk made it clear that customers could browse far more than books when they visited the “LONDON BOOK-STORE,” yet he also made special appeals about some of his books to demonstrate that customers interested in that branch of his business would be well served. In some ways, the diversification of merchandise available at many modern book stores resembles Sparhawk’s strategy for earning a living in eighteenth-century Philadelphia.