What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“PROPOSALS FOR ESTABLISHING A CIRCULATING LIBRARY IN BALTIMORE-TOWN.”
When he opened a circulating library in Annapolis in 1773, bookseller and stationer William Aikman faced competition in his efforts to recruit subscribers in Baltimore. Joseph Rathell announced his own intention for “ESTABLISHING A CIRCULATING LIBRARY IN BALTIMORE-TOWN” in the October 23 edition of the Maryland Journal. A week later, he published a longer advertisement, one that offered the same amenities, lower fees, and greater convenience for patrons than Aikman outlined in his notices.
In his updated address to prospective subscribers, Rathell emphasized the fees for “this much wish’d for Institution,” just “one Dollar a Quarter … (tho’ the Subscription to the Annapolis Library is One Guinea per Annum, besides the Expence of a Dollar a Year for Carriage of Books from thence to this Place by Water).” He expected readers to recognize the bargain for the quarterly fee, while simultaneously mocking Aikman’s most recent advertisement. Aikman apparently learned of Rathell’s “PROPOSALS” and, wary of the threat to his own efforts to expand his clientele beyond Annapolis, devised a plan to address the concerns that prospective subscribers had expressed about the “trouble and risk they run of procuring and returning the books.” In an advertisement in the October 30 edition of the Maryland Journal, the first issue after Rathell’s original advertisement, Aikman presented what he considered a reasonable solution, “any orders for books left with Mr. Christopher Johnston, merchant, in Baltimore, will be regularly forwarded by a packet that goes weekly between Baltimore and Annapolis.” Subscribers could request and return books for just a dollar a year, an additional fee that Rathell derided. Somehow, the bookseller in Baltimore became aware of Aikman’s proposal before it appeared in print in the Maryland Journal. In the same issue that Aikman first introduced delivery service Rathell published a rejoinder on another page. The advertisements ran next to each other in the November 6 edition, drawing even more attention to the bargain that Rathell offered. How did he know about Aikman’s newest proposal before reading the advertisement in the newspaper? The annual subscription fee previously appeared in notices in the Maryland Gazette, advertisements that Rathell could have seen, but the delivery service was a new aspect of Aikman’s library. Did someone in the printing office pass along that information?
Rathell sought to cater to “the Convenience of Gentlemen and Ladies of Literary Taste and Discernment” in Baltimore and surrounding towns, but he was not quite ready to launch his own circulating library. His advertisement undercutting Aikman also served as an invitation to prospective subscribers to submit their names within three weeks of his advertisement’s first appearance in the Maryland Journal. At that time, “if an adequate Number of Subscribers appear, the Library will be completed and opened without Delay.” Rathell encouraged subscribers “to be speedy in entering their Names … that he may be the sooner enable to provide a COLLECTION OF BOOKS … very considerable in Number.” He likely also intended that such haste would prompt prospective subscribers to choose between his library and Aikman’s library in Annapolis, boosting the prospects for his own by drawing subscribers away from a rival. This ploy did not work, in part because prospective subscribers considered Aikman’s proposal the more viable option. Rathell did not open a circulating library in Baltimore, despite the savvy appeals he made. Other factors defeated his plan. As XX explains, “the growing commercial town was still dependent upon the older community.” After all, the Maryland Journal, Baltimore’s first newspaper, commenced publication just a couple of months earlier. “After the Revolution the situation was reversed,” XX continues, noting that “when Parson Weems visited Annapolis in 1800, he could write, ‘There is not a book store in the whole town.’” Baltimore was not quite ready for the circulating library that Rathell envisioned.
 Joseph Towne Wheeler, “Booksellers and Circulating Libraries in Colonial Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine 34, no. 2 (June 1939): 118.
 Wheeler, “Booksellers and Circulating Libraries,” 119.