What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 year ago today?
“A catalogue of new and old books … is given away gratis.”
William Woodhouse, a bookseller, stationer, and bookbinder in Philadelphia, regularly advertised in the public prints in the early 1770s. For instance, he ran an advertisement in the October 28, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, advising consumers that he had recently received a shipment of new inventory from London. Woodhouse provided some examples to entice prospective customer, starting with stationery items. He stocked everything from “a large assortment of the best writing paper in all sizes” to “round pewter ink stands” to “sealing-wax, wafers, quills, [and] black and red pencils.” Woodhouse also listed some of the “variety of new books” at his shop, including “Baskerville’s grand family folio bible, with cuts,” “Pope’s Young’s Swift’s Tillotson’s, Shakespear’s, Bunyan’s. and Flavel’s works,” and “Blackstone’s commentaries, 4 vols. 4to.” The abbreviation “4to” referred to quarto, the size of the pages, allowing readers to imagine how they might consult or display the books. Woodhouse even had “Newberry’s small books for children, with pictures” for his youngest customers.
The bookseller concluded his newspaper advertisement with a nota bene that invited consumers to engage with other marketing materials. “A catalogue of new and old books, with the prices printed to each book,” the nota bene declared, “is given away gratis, by said Woodhouse.” That very well may have been the “CATALOGUE OF A COLLECTION OF NEW AND OLD BOOKS, In all the Arts and Sciences, and in various Languages” that Woodhouse first promoted six weeks earlier in another newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet. That catalog also included “a large quantity of entertaining Novels, with the lowest price printed to each book.” Most book catalogs, like newspaper advertisements, did not indicate prices. Woodhouse apparently believed that stating his prices would help in convincing customers to purchase their books from him rather than from any of his many competitors in Philadelphia. To draw attention to both the prices and his selection, he gave away the catalog for free.
This catalog may have been part of a larger advertising campaign that Woodhouse launched in the fall of 1772. He might have also distributed handbills or posted broadsides. In 1771, he circulated a one-page subscription proposal for “A Pennsylvania Sailor’s Letters; alias the Farmer’s Fall.” A quarter of a century later, Woodhouse distributed a card promoting copies of “Constitutions of the United States, According to the Latest Amendments: To Which Are Annexed, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federal Constitution, with Amendments Thereto.” It stands to reasons that Woodhouse used advertising media other than newspapers on other occasions, though such ephemeral items have not survived in the same numbers as newspaper advertisements. I suspect that far more advertising circulated in early America than has been preserved and identified in historical societies, research libraries, and private collections.