May 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Courant (May 11, 1773).


Hezekiah Merrill’s advertisement for books “JUST IMPORTED, FROM LONDON” filled most of the second page of the May 11, 1773, edition of the Connecticut Courant, filling the space allotted to two columns on other pages.  The compositor, however, did not abide by the usual column width.  Instead, the headline and introduction at the top of the advertisement and a nota bene giving more information at the bottom extended the entire width.  A list of books, one title per line, arranged in three columns accounted for most of the advertisement.  To direct prospective customers to items of interest, Merrill included headers for “DIVINITY,” “LAW,” “PHYSIC & SURGERY,” “HISTORY,” “SCHOOL BOOKS,” and “MISCELLANY.”

Merrill’s advertisement had the appearance of a broadside book catalog that just happened to appear in the pages of a newspaper … and the bookseller may very well have had it printed separately.  Ebenezer Watson, the printer of the Connecticut Courant, made similar arrangements with other advertisers.  In July 1773, for instance, Watson printed a broadside book catalog for Smith and Coit to distribute on their own and inserted it in the Connecticut Courant.  It filled an entire page.  I believe that this previously happened with a full-page advertisement that Smith and Coit placed on August 4, 1772, though no separate broadside book catalog has yet been located.  Similarly, no extant broadside version of Merrill’s advertisement has been identified.

Entrepreneurs created and distributed printed advertisements in a variety of formats in eighteenth-century America, from broadsides and handbills to trade cards and billheads to furniture labels and catalogs.  All of those formats were much more ephemeral than newspaper notices because printers and some subscribers saved their newspapers.  For many newspapers published in the 1700s, we have complete or nearly complete runs, granting access to an array of content that included extensive advertising.  Newspaper notices, in turn, provide evidence of other forms of advertising that have not been preserved by research libraries, historical societies, and private collectors.  Booksellers and auctioneers frequently mentioned catalogs in their newspaper advertisements, but few remain extant.  Merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, tavernkeepers, and others described the signs that marked their locations, sometimes including woodcuts that depicted them, though few of those signs survive today.  Similarly, printers and advertisers likely worked together in producing and distributing far more handbills and broadsides, including broadside book catalogs, than have been saved.  Given its size and unusual format, Merrill’s newspaper advertisement could have circulated separately as part of larger marketing campaign.

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