What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Given away GRATIS … ROBERT BELL’S SALE CATALOGUE of a COLLECTION of NEW AND OLD BOOKS.”
Robert Bell became one of the most prominent and influential American booksellers and publishers of the late eighteenth century, in part due to his flamboyant personality and flair for marketing. He disseminated advertising in the same formats as other booksellers and publishers – newspaper notices, book catalogs, handbills, broadsides – yet introduced innovations intended to engage and entice consumers.
Such was the case in an advertisement that Bell placed in the September 8, 1773, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. If they included a headline at all (other than their names), most advertisers used a stark description of their wares, such as “BOOKS” or “PORT WINE.” Bell, on the other hand, devised a headline that both described and addressed prospective customers: “The CURIOUS IN BOOKS.” In other advertisements, his headlines addressed “THE SONS OF SCIENCE IN AMERICA” and “THE AMERICAN WORLD” and “those who possess a PUBLIC SPIRIT.” In other advertisements, his headlines made dramatic pronouncements, such as “HISTORY” and “LITERATURE” and “XENOPHONTICK BANQUET.” Bell often crafted a headline intended to distinguish his advertisements from others.
He invited “The CURIOUS” to note that “This Day is Published and given away GRATIS, to all who are pleased to call or send for it, ROBERT BELL’S SALE CATALOGUE Of a COLLECTION of NEW AND OLD BOOKS.” Those who desired a copy had the option of visiting the shop or, for their convenience, Bell had catalogs delivered to those who requested them. He emphasized the many choices available, declaring that the catalog listed “above FIFTEEN HUNDRED VOLUMES” and then further elaborating the selection included “a number of elegant and uncommon BOOKS, very scare and rarely to be met with.” That was because many of them were secondhand books from “the LIBRARY of a Gentleman who lately left this Country.” That meant customers had access to rare volumes not widely available in the colonial marketplace. It also implied scarcity, just one copy of many of the books in the catalog, so prospective customers needed to purchase books that interested them quickly.
To encourage “The CURIOUS” to take action, Bell listed more than just the authors and titles of the books in his catalog. Every entry included “the lowest Price fixed to each Book” so consumers could make their own assessments about whether they could afford the books and how much they valued them. Presenting prospective customers with prices also helped them imagine completing transactions and adding books to their own libraries. Although they had to pay for any purchases, Bell distributed the catalogs to “The CURIOUS” for free as a means of getting them started on those imaginative journeys that the bookseller hoped would culminate in sales. Bell combined a lively advertisement and free catalog into an innovative marketing campaign that set him apart from most other booksellers of the period.