What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A CATALOGUE of BOOKS, STATIONARY, &c.”
Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, the printers of the Virginia Gazette, placed a full-page advertisement in the June 10, 1773, edition of their newspaper. Their “CATALOGUE of BOOKS, STATIONARY, &c. To be SOLD at the PRINTING OFFICE, WILLIAMSBURG,” occupied the entire third page. While rare, full-page advertisements were not unknown in eighteenth-century newspapers. Printers and booksellers, especially newspaper printers who also sold books, most frequently adopted this format, but merchants and shopkeepers sometimes utilized it as well.
Purdie and Dixon’s catalog consisted of four columns with one title per line throughout most of it. They organized the entries first by size, with headings for “FOLIOS,” “QUARTOS,” “OCTAVOS,” and “DUODECIMOS.” Within each category, the printers arranged the entries roughly in alphabetical order according to the author’s name or the title of the book. They also had auxiliary categories for “FRENCH SCHOOL BOOKS,” “GREEK SCHOOL BOOKS,” and “LATIN SCHOOL BOOKS,” in the fourth column. To conserve space, titles of school books, many of them familiar to prospective customers, appeared in paragraphs rather than each receiving its own line. Rather than a header for “STATIONERY” (or “STATIONARY” as it was most commonly spelled in the eighteenth century), a line indicated where the list of writing supplies and other items began. There, once again, Purdie and Dixon listed only one item per line to help prospective customers navigate their catalog.
In addition to inserting their catalog in their newspaper, Purdie and Dixon may have published it separately and distributed it via other means, as they seemingly had done on at least one previous occasion. They could have passed it out to customers who visited their printing office. Treating it as a broadside, the printers could have posted it around town or made arrangements for associates in other towns to hang it in their stores and shops. They may even have folded it over, sealed and addressed it, and had it delivered to prospective customers, though printers and others experimented with circular letters less often than they distributed broadsides, handbills, and catalogs in the eighteenth century. The catalog might have appeared solely in the Virginia Gazette, but given the printers’ access to the press and their other efforts to distribute book catalogs it seems more likely that they published and disseminated this catalog separately as well.