What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A LAWYER … lent the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES … to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot.”
After first appearing in the Pennsylvania Packet in January 1773, the curious story of the missing copy of “the fourth volume of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES, London edition,” ran among the advertisements in the February 2, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. According to the advertisement, an unnamed lawyer lent the book “to some gentleman whose name he hath forgot” and desired for the borrower to return it, not to himself but instead to bookseller Robert Bell. Readers may have suspected that Bell created the lawyer and the story of the missing book, especially since the advertisement concluded with a nota bene that announced that later in the month the “FOURTH VOLUME of the AMERICAN EDITION of BLACKSTONE’s COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND, will be ready for the subscribers.” How convenient that a borrower supposedly neglected to return just that volume to the unnamed lawyer! How convenient that the narrator of the story thought that the missing book “hath been lent to several persons since it left the proprietor’s library” and called on “the second, third, or fourth borrower” to provide information about its whereabouts!
In the final third of the eighteenth century, Bell became one of the most prominent booksellers and publishers in the colonies and the new nation, working even before the Revolution to cultivate an American literary market. He developed innovative marketing methods and attracted even more attention to them with his flamboyant personality. While there is no way to definitively demonstrate that Bell fabricated the story of the lawyer and the missing volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries, such a ploy would not have been beyond the enterprising bookseller who spent two years marketing an American edition of all four volumes and gathering subscribers from throughout the colonies. He made savvy use of the public prints, so it may have been possible that he initially published the story of the lawyer and the missing book in the Pennsylvania Packet to see if it generated additional interest in the complete collection of Blackstone’s Commentaries and later considered it worth the investment to disseminate the same story in another newspaper. He updated the nota bene to indicate that publication would take place “some time this month” rather than “Sometime in February.” The advertisement also included a date, February 2, 1773, the day before publication of that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Bell waited more than a week after inserting the notice in the Pennsylvania Packet before submitting it to another newspaper, further suggesting that the responses he received from the initial insertion may have aided him in deciding to run the same advertisement in an additional newspaper. Even if he planned from the start to expand the circulation of the story of the lawyer and the missing volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries, he carefully timed his advertisements to coincide with publication of the final volume.