What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“I have not yet been favoured with a sufficiency of subscribers to enable me to carry it into immediate execution.”
Samuel Gale, the author of The Complete Surveyor, looked for subscribers to publish his work for more than a year. He distributed a handbill with the dateline “PHILADELPHIA, MARCH 12th, 1772,” to advise those who already subscribed for copies of the book that even though he already collected two hundred subscribers on his own and expected to receive others from local agents in other cities and towns “the number in the whole falls considerably short of my expectations.” Furthermore, he anticipated that “this work will be large, and the expence of printing it considerably greater than would be defrayed by the present number of subscribers.” Accordingly, others had advised him “to delay the printing of it a little longer” out of concerns that he “might perhaps be a loser by proceeding too hastily.” In other words, Gale received sound advice that he would likely incur expenses that he could not pay if he took the book to press without enough subscribers to defray the costs.
To that end, he hoped “for many Gentlemen in America, to encourage this publication” by becoming subscribers or, if they had already subscribed, recruiting other subscribers. To reassure prospective subscribers of the quality of The Complete Surveyor, Gale asserted that the “Manuscript Copy has met with the approbation of some of the best judges of these matters in America,” including William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling, a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia; Alexander Colden, the Surveyor General of New York; David Rittenhouse, a prominent astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor in Philadelphia; and John Lukens, the Surveyor General of Pennsylvania. Gale inserted short testimonials from each of these supports below a heading that called attention to “RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE ABOVE WORK.” In addition, he hoped to entice subscribers by promising to insert an “Essay on the Variation of the Needle, written by the late Mr. LEWIS EVANS,” a renowned Welsh surveyor and geographer who published the General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America in 1755. Gale concluded the handbill with a list of local agents who accepted subscriptions in a dozen towns from Boston to Savannah. In addition, he declared that “all the Booksellers and Printers in America” accepted subscriptions.
Apparently, such an extensive network did not yield a sufficient number of subscribers. At the end of June 1773, more than fifteen months later, Gale ran an advertisement in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. He once again stated that the “manuscript copy has met with the greatest approbation,” yet “I have not yet been favoured with a sufficiency of subscribers to enable me to carry it into execution, without running too great a hazard.” He requested that those who already subscribed give him a few more months to solicit subscribers among “the other well-wishers to mathematical learning among the public.” He included the endorsements that previously appeared on the handbill and an even more extensive list of local agents, concluding with a note that “all the Booksellers and Printers in America and the West-India Islands” forwarded subscriptions to him.
Despite his best efforts, Gale never managed to attract enough subscribers to publish the book. A note in the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog entry for the handbill states that “an insufficient number of subscriptions were received to encourage publication.” Gale circulated advertising materials in more than one format, deployed testimonials from prominent experts in his field, offered a bonus essay as a premium, and made it convenient to subscribe via local agents throughout the colonies. He developed a sophisticated marketing campaign, but it ultimately fell short of inciting sufficient demand for the book he wished to published.