What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“FENNING’s much-approved SPELLING-BOOK.”
John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, inserted an advertisement for “FENNING’s much-approved SPELLING-BOOK” in his own newspaper on October 9, 1773. With news items, editorials, and other advertisements, Carter had so much content that he did not provide much detail in the advertisement except to note that he sold copies “Wholesale and Retail” and set prices “Cheaper by the Dozen than any imported” for those who purchased a quantity. The printer also advised that Jacob Richardson sold the spelling books in Newport in case some readers of the Providence Gazette might find it more convenient to make their purchases in that town. Carter kept his advertisement for “WEST’s ALMANACK, For the Year of Our Lord 1774” similarly brief, noting that it “is now in the Press, and will be published seasonably.”
Had Carter inserted a more extensive advertisement, he likely would have generated much of it from the title of the spelling book. Advertisements for books often quoted the lengthy subtitles common for books published in the eighteenth century. In this case, Carter could have promoted the spelling book as a “new and easy guide to the English language” and invoked the author’s credentials as a former schoolmaster in Suffolk and author of The Use of Globes, Practical Arithmetic, Royal English Dictionary, and Young Man’s Book of Knowledge. Both of these books, Fanning’s spelling book and West’s almanac, were so popular and widely known that Carter likely considered it worth announcing that he sold them even if he did not have additional space to promote them in that issue of the Providence Gazette. After all, he and his predecessors who worked with West to publish an almanac each year undertook extensive advertising. Carter’s reprint of Fanning’s spelling book was the “fifteenth edition, with additions,” according to the title page. Prospective customers presumably already knew a lot about both books.
Even though Carter sold Fanning’s spelling book “by the Dozen,” today only one known copy survives in a research library, historical society, or private collection. That copy, held at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, has been damaged, a portion of its title page missing. Carter, Richardson, booksellers, schoolmasters, shopkeepers, and peddlers may have distributed that edition of the spelling book widely in Rhode Island and nearby colonies in the early 1770s, but over time and perhaps through use those copies became as ephemeral as many of the broadsides, pamphlets, handbills, and other items produced on printing presses prior to the American Revolution.