September 8

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 5, 1771).
“PURDIE and DIXON have imported a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper.”

Like many other colonial printers, Alexander Purdie and John Dixon took advantage of their access to the press to insert advertisements for goods and services they provided in the newspaper they published.  Such was the case in the September 5, 1771, edition of the Virginia Gazette.  Interspersed among the paid notices, the printers included their own advertisement for a vast array of imported goods.

Purdie and Dixon deployed a standard list format, creating a dense block of text.  Within their advertisement, however, they did organize their merchandise according to three main categories:  stationery wares, music, and patent medicines.  Many printers created additional revenue streams by selling books, stationery, and writing equipment.  Purdie and Dixon stocked “a fresh Assortment of all Kinds of Paper, fine large Dutch and Hudson Bay Quills, fine Japan Ink, shining Sand, red and black Dutch Sealing Wax,” and a variety of other items to equip any desk for business or correspondence.  They also carried several pieces of music, including “Midas, the Padlock, and Love in a Village, for the Harpsicord, Voice, German Flute, Violin, or Guitar” and “eight Italian Sonatas for two Violins or Flutes, with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord, by several eminent Composers.”  The printers had on hand both popular and genteel selections to suit the tastes of their customers.  Furthermore, most printers and booksellers who included music among their titles did not indicate such an extensive selection.  Purdie and Dixon concluded by enumerating a dozen patent medicines, including many of the most common ones marketed from New England to Georgia.  “Bateman’s Pectoral Drops; Stoughton’s Squire’s, and Daffy’s Elixirs; [and] Turlington’s Balsam” required no further explanation because they were so familiar to consumers.  That may have been one of the reasons that printers frequently supplemented their stock of books and stationery with patent medicines, even if they did not sell other sorts of consumer goods.

Purdie and Dixon’s printing office “at the POST OFFICE” in Williamsburg was a hub for collecting and disseminating information, but it was also a place to go shopping.  They made available a variety of equipment for writing, all kinds of sheet music for entertainment, and an assortment of patent medicines for customers to treat illnesses and chronic conditions.  In addition to the fees they generated for subscriptions, advertising, and job printing, Purdie and Dixon also generated revenues from selling items from select categories of imported goods.

August 28

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Aug 28 - 8:25:1768 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (August 25, 1768).

“Those Gentlemen who incline to take Copies, will leave their Names with THOMAS FOXCROFT.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, the printers of the Virginia Gazette, regularly inserted notices in their own newspaper, yet they also understood the colonial book trade well enough that they did not limit their advertisements to their own publication, especially not when attempting to incite interest in a major new project from their press. During the summer of 1768 Purdie and Dixon set about publishing “A COMPLETE Revisal of all the VIRGINIA ACTS OF ASSEMBLY now in Force and Use.”

To aid in generating sufficient revenues to make this book a viable venture, Purdie and Dixon inserted a short subscription notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette, counting on learned men in the largest port city in the colonies to purchase copies for their libraries. They likely also calculated that the extensive distribution of the Pennsylvania Gazette would set their announcement before the eyes of many more potential customers throughout the mid-Atlantic revion and beyond. The placement of their subscription notice – among the many other advertisements in the August 25 issue rather than as an announcement adjacent to the news items – suggests that the printers or their local agent paid for its insertion; its appearance was not an in-kind courtesy by the printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

That being the case, Purdie and Dixon’s subscription notice occupied significantly less space than they could have allotted for themselves in their own publication. They briefly outlined the publication scheme, including the material aspects of the book: “a large Folio Volume, of about 600 Pages, neatly bound in Calf, and lettered, printed upon a new Type, and fine Paper.” In addition, they also indicated the cost: “the Price to Subscribers Forty Shillings Virginia Currency.” The publishers then invited “those Gentlemen who incline to take Copies” to contact their local agent in Philadelphia, “THOMAS FOXCROFT, at the Post-Office.” At some later time Foxcroft would send a list of subscribers to Purdie and Dixon at their printing office in Williamsburg.

Like many other printers and publishers in eighteenth-century America, Purdie and Dixon did not rely solely on local markets to support their major initiatives, not even when the publication under consideration seemed of interest primarily to residents of their own colony. Purdie and Dixon realized that lawyers, legislators, and a variety of other consumers would be interested in a new edition of the laws currently enacted in the Virginia colony. A small investment in advertising to them could significantly improve the prospects of a successful venture for the book.