What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Every Subscriber shall have his Name and Title printed in the Title Page, in a Label adapted for that Purpose, as in the above Scheme, provided their Signature come timely to Hand.”
For several weeks in the winter and spring of 1773, subscription proposals for Elie Vallette’s Deputy Commissary’s Guide within the Province of Maryland ran in the Maryland Gazette. When the advertisement first appeared in the February 25 edition, it filled an entire column. An excerpt from the preface accounted for approximately half of the space required to publish the notice. Vallette and the printers, Anne Catharine Green and Son, eventually revised the notice, eliminating the excerpt.
The advertisement retained its most distinctive feature: a “scheme” or depiction of a label to include the name, title, and county of the subscriber. Vallette and the Greens hoped that personalizing the title page would help in selling more books, but warned that only subscribers who placed their orders early would qualify for the labels. Those labels, however, do not seem to have been part of the book when it went to press. Instead, subscribers (and others who eventually purchased copies or received them as gifts) received something that they likely considered even better: an engraved title page that included a blank banner.
Curious to learn more about the proposed label, I examined the four copies of the Deputy Commissary’s Guide in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society. None of them featured the label depicted in the advertisements in the Maryland Gazette, but each of them did include a title page engraved by Thomas Sparrow. Annotations made by catalogers and curators indicated that Sparrow also engraved currency that circulated in Maryland in the early 1770s. In addition, those annotations also stated that the Deputy Commissary’s Guide was the first book with an engraved title page printed in America, certainly a premium for subscribers and other readers who acquired copies.
The engraved title page certainly enhanced the book. The blank banner allowed colonizers to further enhance their copies in whatever manner they wished to personalize the title page. The banners in two of the copies at the American Antiquarian Society remain empty. One has the words “TO MR. J: MACNABB* *1775*” clumsily stamped within the banner. A handwritten note on another page reads, “The Gift of Elie Vallette to his Friend John McNabb.” The other copy has the name “R. Tilghman” gracefully written inside the banner.
Vallette and the Greens did not supply the personalized labels that they promoted in the subscription proposals for the Deputy Commissary’s Guide. That probably did not matter to most subscribers when they discovered the ornate and expensive engraved title page that they received instead. The author and the printers substituted an even better premium than the one they marketed to prospective subscribers.