July 11

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

Maryland Gazette (July 8, 1773).

“The library will be of real utility to the publick.”

In the summer of 1773, William Aikman, a bookseller and stationer, opened a circulating library in Annapolis.   Like other libraries founded in eighteenth-century America, Aikman’s new venture was a subscription library that required users to pay fees to borrow books.  The bookseller accumulated and lent “12 hundred volumes on the most useful sciences, history, poetry, agriculture, voyages, travels, miscellanies, plays, with all the most approved of novels, magazines and other books of entertainment,” but library patrons had to pay for borrowing privileges.

Aikman provided an overview of those fees, a sliding scale that gave greater bargains to patrons who subscribed for longer periods. The nominal difference in the fees for six months compared to a year seemed designed for Aikman to attract yearly subscribers that he could then promote to prospective subscribers.  Just as newspaper printers boasted about their extensive circulation in their efforts to entice new subscribers and, especially, advertisers, the bookseller likely realized that some colonizers would subscribe to his library for an entire year when they learned how many others had already done so.  The perceived popularity of this service had the potential to spawn even more demand.  Aikman’s pricing structure encouraged patrons to subscribe for longer periods, enhancing the appearance of the popularity of the new venture.

  • 5 shillings per month
  • 12 shillings per quarter
    • saving 3 shillings or 20% compared to the monthly rate
  • 20 shillings for six months
    • saving 4 shillings or 17% compared to the quarterly rate
    • saving 10 shillings or 33% compared to the monthly rate
  • 1 guinea (or 21 shillings) per year
    • saving 19 shillings or 48% compared to the semiannual rate
    • saving 27 shillings or 56% compared to the quarterly rate
    • saving 39 shillings or 65% compared to the monthly rate

The bookseller also offered a nightly rate, three pence, for patrons who desired access to the library but did not wish to pay for an entire month or longer.  Depending on the patron’s perspective, the nightly rate was either a bargain or exorbitant.  It granted entry to those who might not have been able to commit to the monthly, quarterly, semiannual, or annual rates, but at a much higher cost per night.

Whether patrons opted to check out books by the night or purchase subscriptions to borrow two books at a time for a year, Aikman considered his new circulating library an important service “of real utility to the publick.”  He requested “encouragement from the friends of literature” to make it a successful venture that met the needs of the community as well as generating revenues for the proprietor.

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