What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Mr. RATHELL thankfully acknowledges the receipt of a Letter signed ‘a Friend to Literary Institutions.’”
Joseph Rathell’s “PROPOSALS FOR ESTABLISHING A CIRCULATING LIBRARY IN BALTIMORE-TOWN” appeared once again in the November 13, 1773, edition of the Maryland Journal. So did William Aikman’s address “To the LADIES and GENTLEMEN of the Town of BALTIMORE” concerning his efforts to establish a circulating library in Annapolis and deliver books to subscribers in Baltimore. Aikman reported that he heard from prospective subscribers that they had concerns about “the trouble and risk they run of procuring and returning the books.” To assuage such anxieties, he devised a plan for subscribers in Baltimore to submit orders and return books to a local merchant who would then forward them to Annapolis via a weekly packet ship. Aikman planned to charge a dollar for delivery service in addition to the subscription fees. Rathell mocked the additional fee in an advertisement that ran in the same issue of the Maryland Journal as Aikman’s notice. He seemingly knew about Aikman’s advertisement before it appeared in print, perhaps tipped off by a friend in the printing office.
Whether or not that was the case, Rathell did receive other assistance from the Maryland Journal in marketing his circulating library. The local news items included a blurb about his efforts and the response from residents of the city so far. The blurb ran immediately below “SHIP NEWS” and before “PRICES CURRENT at BALTIMORE,” a prime spot for merchants and other readers to notice it. It related that Rathell “thankfully acknowledges the receipt of a Letter signed ‘a Friend to Literary Institutions,’ enclosing the Names of sundry Ladies and Gentlemen, as Subscribers to his intended CIRCULATING LIBRARY.” Readers may have doubted the veracity of this report, dismissing it as mere puffery. Those who continued reading encountered commentary from Rathell that might have more appropriately appeared among the advertisements. For instance, he pledged that “he will be particularly exact in selecting the Books, in which he will be principally governed by Gentlemen of known literary Skill, in Philadelphia, and New-York.” In so doing, he directed attention away from Aikman’s library in Annapolis in favor of larger and more cosmopolitan port cities. He also directly solicited requests from prospective subscribers to his library, proclaiming that “any Commands addressed to Mr. Rathell, directing his Attention to particular, scarce, or curious Publications, &c. shall meet due Regard.” This advertisement masqueraded as a news item, supplementing the proposals that Rathell published elsewhere in the newspaper. He could have incorporated all of the information into a single notice, but a news item doubled as an endorsement of his enterprise. In the end, it did not matter. Rathell did not manage to launch a circulating library in Baltimore. Aikman had more success with his endeavor in Annapolis, at least prior to the Revolutionary War.