What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“PROPOSALS For Re-Printing by Subscription … Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Spirit of Laws.”
It would have been hard for readers to miss the subscription proposal that dominated the final page of the October 19, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. John Boyles announced his intention to publish an “American Edition” of the “Baron de MONTESQUIEU’s celebrated Sprit of the Laws,” a work of political philosophy “Which ought to be in EVERY MAN’s Hands.” Boyles explained that the book had been “Translated from the French Original” as well as “translated and published in most of the civilized Nations of EUROPE.” Colonizers who wished to participate in the transatlantic republic of letters needed to acquire copies of their own. To make this particular edition even more attractive than imported alternatives, the publisher stated that it would include “a larger Account of the Life and Writings of the AUTHOR, than is in the European Editions.”
The format of the subscription proposal suggests that it may have been printed separately as a broadside or handbill, on paper of a different size, for distribution beyond subscribers to the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. If that was indeed the case, the compositor did not wish to set the type once again in order to insert the subscription proposal in the newspaper. Its width exceeded two newspaper columns, causing the compositor to create a narrow third column by rotating the type for additional advertisements to run perpendicular to the page. In the years immediately preceding the American Revolution, advertisers sometimes arranged to have book catalogues, broadsides, or handbills incorporated into newspapers, expanding the reach of their marketing efforts. That being the case, I suspect that more advertising ephemera circulated in early America than has been identified and preserved in research libraries, historical societies, and private collections. This subscription proposal in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy hints at a hidden history of early American advertising impossible to recover in its entirety. Although newspaper notices constituted, by the far, the most voluminous form of advertising in early America, other printed media likely circulated more frequently than previously realized.